In the Horn of Africa, a tiny “country” on the ears of Congress

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Somaliland brought strong anti-Chinese references to these meetings: It slammed the door on aid and cooperation with Beijing in July 2020 when it signed a diplomatic relations agreement with Taiwan.

The move infuriated the Chinese government as it marked a rare victory in Taiwan’s battle against Beijing’s diplomatic strangulation of the autonomous island.

Somaliland also has geostrategic potential: its location on the Gulf of Aden and the deep-water port of Berbera, in which Dubai’s DP World has paid $ 442 million to build a new container freight facility, would allow protection. of naval energy in the Middle East and East. Africa. This is a serious incentive given US Africa Command’s concerns about its base in neighboring Djibouti: a Chinese naval installation a few miles away was erected in 2017.

“We came to the United States to show them that we have the same enemy, and our long-term strategy is that we want to be closer to democracies and market economies like the United States,” Bashir Goth said, chef de mission at the unofficial Somaliland outpost. in Alexandria, Virginia. “We are fighting China [and] Chinese influence in the Horn of Africa and we deserve [U.S. government] to help.”

That speech had an impact – last week the very first staff congress delegation visited the territory, marking what the Somaliland Chronicle has described as “the highest level U.S. delegation” for over a decade. decade. This fact-finding mission included staff from Senator Jim Risch (R-Idaho), Senator Lindsey Graham (RS.C.), Representative Chris Smith (RN.J.), Representative Kay Granger (R-Texas ), and Representative Michael McCaul (R-Texas), senior member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

The staff returned home convinced of Somaliland’s value to the United States in combating China’s regional influence, said Piero Tozzi, Smith’s senior foreign policy adviser.

“As China becomes more aggressive in promoting its model of debt trap in Africa – Djibouti’s indebtedness and the transfer of control of Entebbe airport in Uganda give it political leverage in these countries – Somaliland is becoming more and more important, ”Tozzi said. “I hope the US government will start dealing directly with the Hargeisa government instead of going through Mogadishu, and join countries like the UK, Ethiopia and the United Arab Emirates to open an office in representation.”

In Washington, the Somaliland delegation, which included Foreign Minister Essa Kayd Mohamoud and Special Envoy Edna Adan Ismail, made the same speech for increased engagement and diplomatic relations during their visit to Congress offices in November. They also want the US government to remove Somaliland from its inclusion in the State Department’s “Level 4: Do not travel” classification for Somalia, which is rocked by political unrest and violence from the extremist group affiliated with al-. Qaeda al-Shabab. This classification warns of dangers including “car bombs, suicide bombings, individual attackers and mortar fire” which are unknown in Somaliland.

“We are a safe country, free from Al-Shabab and Al-Qaeda terrorists,” Kayd said – an opinion echoed by travel guide company Lonely Planet.

Senator Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), Who sits on the Africa subcommittee of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, says he is in full swing, especially given the potential for US access to the port of Berbera. The diplomatically isolated territory offers the United States a regional bulwark against “China’s efforts to force its way into various economies,” Van Hollen said.

China’s superpower status in Africa

This may be wishful thinking, given China’s level of economic influence in Africa. Since 2000, the Chinese government has intensified its engagement through its Forum on Sino-African Cooperation. Chinese government data shows the construction of “6,000 kilometers of railroads and roads … nearly 20 ports and over 80 large power plants” across the continent. And that doesn’t even count the total investment of Chinese public and private investments in African countries, which totaled $ 4.2 billion in 2020 alone. Chinese President Xi Jinping pledged in December 2021 to increase the value of African exports to China of 300 billion dollars per year within three years from a current level of around $ 200 billion.

Xi’s Belt and Road Initiative has also provided hundreds of billions of dollars in loans to infrastructure development projects in 40 African states since 2013. These loans prompted USAID administrator Mark Green in 2019 to accuse the Chinese government of predatory state-backed lending practices, something Beijing denies. China has also extended its military ties in Africa through its naval port in Djibouti, a new base planned for Equatorial Guinea and through a sharp increase in training programs for African military personnel since 2006.

“My point of view is that the United States should be more engaged with Somaliland [and] what we are considering is opening an office in Somaliland which would include diplomatic representation … possibly military liaison, ”Van Hollen said. “China’s mercantilist approach to the continent and the fact that it uses its centralized economic levers to demand concessions from these countries [makes] it is an opportunity to expand the American diplomatic presence in the region.

Goth and the Somaliland delegation also met with officials from the Ministry of Defense, National Security Council, State Department and USAID. At these meetings, Somalilanders argued that the self-proclaimed republic, a former British protectorate with 530 miles of coastline on the Gulf of Aden wedged between Djibouti, Somalia and Ethiopia, should be the government’s newest best friend. American on the continent.

Kayd said the delegation reached an agreement with US officials “to establish a framework for cooperation between the United States and Somaliland”. This may include USAID’s authorization to operate regional foreign aid operations from Somaliland as well as a currently undefined US government “presence” in the territory, he added.

USAID, State, and DoD offered a more ambiguous account of these meetings. A written USAID statement did not reveal any possible plans to use Somaliland as an intermediary to neighboring Ethiopia and other African states. The state said during its meeting with Essa, it “expressed willingness to explore opportunities for cooperation with Somaliland on matters of mutual interest,” a sentiment shared by the DoD, told POLITICO a spokesperson for the State Department.

All three agencies referred to the diplomatic awkwardness of Somaliland’s strained relations with Somalia, which still claims sovereignty over the separatist state 30 years after its unilateral secession. They expressed support for “the territorial integrity of the Federal Republic of Somalia, which includes Somaliland” and called for a “mutually acceptable solution to the status issue of Somaliland,” the spokesperson said. At these meetings, US government agencies “did not discuss the field presence of US military personnel or equipment” in Somaliland, a senior administration official told POLITICO.

This ambiguity reflects the sensitivity of the United States to concerns that increased international engagement with Somaliland could prompt troubled parts of the continent, including Cameroon, Ghana and Tanzania, to redouble their efforts to seek independence.

“He has a very solid record [for diplomatic recognition], but its practical aspects which retain international recognition because the African Union is afraid of favoring the fragmentation of some of its main members, ”said Tibor Nagy, former Deputy Secretary of State for African Affairs.

Turn to Taiwan

Somaliland’s response to this diplomatic impasse is a risky geopolitical chess game: embrace Taiwan. In July 2020, Somaliland and Taiwan entered into a bilateral relations agreement that opened the door to Taiwanese investment and assistance and allowed the two territories to open representative offices in their respective capitals. An enraged Beijing, which claims Taiwan as part of its territory, has reportedly sought to derail the deal by offering the Somaliland government sweeteners, including investments in airport and road projects.

But Somaliland has stood firm with Taiwan and its offer of less capital-intensive investments in “fisheries, agriculture, energy, mining, public health.” [and] education.”

It was a victory for both Taiwan and Somaliland’s efforts to explicitly present itself as Africa’s sole adversary to Chinese authoritarianism. “We have values, democracy and respect for human rights, and we want to run our government as we want. [so] we prefer to have Taiwan rather than China which is a dictatorship, ”Kayd said.

Somaliland’s alliance with Taiwan is also strategic: it seeks to exploit the autonomy of the autonomous island. 50 years experience in managing international relations without a UN headquarters and with few diplomatic allies – and often unreliable.

Taiwan’s value has risen in recent months as the United States responds to heightened military intimidation from China by strengthening bilateral ties and inviting Taiwan officials to President Joe Biden’s Democracy Summit at the beginning of the month. “The philosophy of the relationship between Taiwan and Somaliland is that we are in the same boat,” Kayd said. “We are both sailing together towards this goal of being China-liberated countries [influence]. “

Taiwan sees a diplomatic establishment in Somaliland as an entry point for developing wider and deeper relations with other East African countries. Taiwan hopes such ties can provide some relief to Beijing’s efforts to diplomatically isolate the autonomous island. Taiwan’s diplomatic allies around the world have fallen to 14 since Nicaragua changed relations with China on December 9; its only other ally on the continent is the Eswatini monarchy in southern Africa, which has a population of 1.2 million.

The United States is unlikely to embrace Somaliland with full diplomatic recognition. But given the intensification of geostrategic competition between the United States and China in Africa – especially for the mineral resources that will power the clean energy of the future – the time is on Somaliland’s side.

“It has taken a while for people to realize the threat China poses to Africa as we enter the 21st century… the United States is late coming to this game,” Nagy said.


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