Last week, a delegation from Somaliland went on a five-day tour of Taiwan, a trip that elicited a negative reaction from China.

Led by foreign minister Essa Kayd, the team from the breakaway Somali region met with President Tsai Ing-wen, foreign minister Joseph Wu and Taiwanese ministry officials, promoting Somaliland’s oil and gas sector for investment by Taiwanese companies.

When asked by a journalist at a press conference on Feb. 9  to comment on the visit, Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian condemned it, saying Taiwan was “fanning the flames to undermine the independence and unification of other countries, harming others without benefiting themselves.”

In response, Kayd two days later described Somaliland as independent and said China shouldn’t interfere with the ties between the two regions.

“We were born free and we will stay free. We will run our business the way we want. China cannot dictate,” he told reporters.

Where is Somaliland?

Somaliland is a self-declared state in the Horn of Africa. It split from Somalia in 1991, but has little recognition in the international community, as its attempts to get recognition have been largely ignored. The African Union contends that Somaliland only become independent with Somalia’s consent.

Somaliland has been peaceful since it broke away from Somalia, which in contrast has gone through three decades of civil war. The two were also initially not part of the same territory for a long time before independence, with present-day Somalia being in the Italian Somaliland protectorate and present-day Somaliland being in the British Somaliland protectorate.

The region has been trying to establish economic and political ties with countries around the world.

This latest attempt, with Taiwan, has ruffled feathers. Like Somaliland, Taiwan is muddled in its own sovereignty issues. Taiwan views itself as a sovereign state but China considers it a breakaway province and its own territory. Also similarly with Somaliland, Taiwan is diplomatically isolated.

“There is only one China in the world, and Taiwan is an inalienable part of China,” Zhao, the Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson, said, referring to the country’s “One China” policy.

All African Union member states, apart from Eswatini, follow the policy.

Somaliland-Taiwan relationship provides a sense of recognition

Contact between Somaliland and Taiwan is significant for the two regions because it gives them a sense of recognition, says Ovigwe Eguegu, a geopolitical analyst at Development Reimagined, an African-led international development consultancy with headquarters in China.

For Somaliland, Taiwan could be a major ally in courting countries that are supportive of Taiwan to also support Somaliland’s quest for recognition, he adds, while Somaliland also hopes to attract investments from Taiwan-based companies to support its development.

“These are of course worthy ambitions, but they may not lead to the international changes both are aiming for,” says Eguegu.

By Carlos Mureithi

Quartz Africa