The unrecognized Republic of Somaliland recently did what few African states do: it defied China. On July 1, Somaliland and Taiwan, another nation not recognized by the United Nations, agreed to exchange ambassadors and open embassies in their respective capitals. The Chinese government is not accustomed to such rebuffs and has condemned the move by saying that Taiwan is undermining the territorial integrity of Somalia.
Somaliland, like Taiwan, fulfills the requirements for statehood as laid out in the 1933 Montevideo Convention on the Rights and Duties of States. In the case of Somaliland, it was a British protectorate that was, albeit briefly, an independent country before it chose to enter into a union with Somalia, a former Italian colony.
Somaliland declared its independence from Somalia in 1991 after fighting a brutal war against Somalia’s longtime dictator Siad Barre. Barre’s government engaged in genocide against Somalilanders, famously ordering his pilots to take off from Hargeisa’s airport, Somaliland’s capital and largest city, and bomb the city.
When Somaliland declared its independence, Hargeisa was in ruins. Somalilanders have spent the last 30 years rebuilding their cities and, most importantly, establishing a functioning democracy. Even more than Taiwan, which has enjoyed US support, Somalilanders have rebuilt their country with little outside assistance.
Unlike Somalia, which has received billions of dollars in aid over the last two decades, Somaliland largely relies on its own resources. This has fostered independence and resilience that influence the way Somaliland does everything from conducting foreign policy to successfully combatting terrorism.
Defying China is the latest example of this independence. Somaliland occupies a strategic position along the Gulf of Aden. Somaliland’s port-city of Berbera has long been a global entrepôt. China’s interest in the port dates to the ninth century, when it was described by a Tang Dynasty poet, a connection that Chinese businessmen visiting Somaliland often point out.
The growth of China’s influence in Africa, and especially in the Horn of Africa, has been nothing short of stunning. Over the past two decades, China has gone from being a minor player in the politics and economies of African countries to the dominant power in many of these nations. China’s influence is pervasive and persistent. Compared with U.S. foreign policy, China’s foreign policy is pragmatic and cost-effective. It uses a combination of cheap loans, aid, and, increasingly, military assistance, to secure its influence.
Somaliland’s strategic location, stability, and potential oil and mineral wealth, all make the country attractive to the Chinese government and its state-backed companies. In the neighboring countries of Djibouti, where China established its first overseas military base, and Ethiopia, China has made itself the preeminent outside power. Somaliland, which desperately needs more foreign investment, should have been an easy target for China. It wasn’t.