Noah Trowbridge is a third year International Relations student in the Department of War Studies. He is the current Latin America Editor for IR Today, conducts political risk advisal for London Politica and leads the King’s Think Tank’s Defence & Diplomacy Policy Centre. He notably covers security developments across Sub-Saharan Africa and East Asia.
Since the launch of the Belt & Road Initiative (BRI) in 2013, much ink has been spilled over the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) tentacular sprawl along its historical Silk Road that spans from the Pacific to Western Europe. The widespread mediatic fear over Chinese ventures in Central Asia, Southern Europe, East Africa, and the subsequent increase of political leverage Beijing has accumulated in these regions has caught up with the decade-long debate in International Relations academia over the role of the PRC in shaping a new world order. Realists yearn for a return to bipolarity through a Cold War-esque Sino-American rivalry, while Liberals wholeheartedly trust that the US-led liberal world order is merely experiencing a temporary period of crisis. With these debates focusing primarily on the ambitions of great powers, it is easy to overlook the role of smaller powers in the unfolding world order.
The Republic of China (ROC) – commonly known as Taiwan – does not appear on most world maps as its recognition is limited to that of only 15 states as of 2021. Of Africa’s 54 sovereign states, only the small kingdom of Eswatini has resisted the PRC’s financial embrace and maintained formal diplomatic relations with Taipei. Despite mainland China’s increasingly dominant economic, diplomatic – and to a lesser extent military – presence across the African continent, its noisy neighbour remains a thorn in the side of the BRI’s full completion. Indeed, the ROC provides an endearing alternative to Chinese investments on the continent.
The PRC remains the privileged economic partner on the continent, as signalled by Senegalese President Macky Sall at the November Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC): “We have moved forward hand in hand, pragmatically and effectively, as evidenced by the intensification of our trade, investments and the many achievements under our various action plans”. Indeed, for the 12th year in a row, the PRC remains the continent’s leading trading partner as well as a major contributor of Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) with at least $40 billion pledged to African countries at FOCAC 2021. While this provides states with much needed credit and infrastructural development, the PRC has come under international criticism for its “irresponsible lending” practises contributing to a deepening debt traps. Furthermore, brewing anti-Chinese sentiment among local populations – such as Kenyan small-scale traders sidelined by capital flow from the PRC – is regularly captured and bolstered by populist political actors “to build popular support for electoral fortunes”.
This context has allowed the ROC to emerge as a sustainable alternative to the BRI in specific environments. The study of the island’s blooming relationship with the proto-state of Somaliland is enlightening in this respect. Since establishing the Taiwan Representative Office in the Republic of Somaliland in the capital of Hargeisa in August 2020, the proto-states have developed “high political relations” – below the threshold of high-level diplomatic relations – to defy the PRC and Somalia and bolster their international credibility.
In practice, this rapprochement offers the ROC a major commercial gateway to the Horn of Africa and Eastern Africa, taking advantage of the planned expansion of Somaliland’s Berbera port and Ethiopia’s willingness to privilege the Somali logistical channel over its Djiboutian counterpart for 30% of its maritime imports. Taipei has thus sent government geologists to map out the country’s mineral reserves to incentivise investments from Taiwanese mining corporations. This prospect is all the more enticing considering Somaliland’s political stability and relative security since its constitutional reforms in 2000. In December 2020, director-general of the Taiwanese Foreign Ministry’s Department of International Cooperation and Economic Affairs, Cai Yunzhong, admitted that “as markets in Europe, the United States and China are becoming saturated, Africa, a long-neglected market, is a potential investment destination for Taiwanese companies”. Furthermore, considering Beijing’s strengthening diplomatic ties with the continent, the ROC finds itself sidelined from most regional trade blocs – such as the recently signed Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership – thus highlighting the importance of its foothold in Somaliland.
From Hargeisa’s perspective, this convergence will provide much needed FDIs and humanitarian assistance. Indeed, the ROC intends to use Somaliland as a blueprint for “its own model of development assistance, prioritizing maritime security, fisheries, agriculture, technology, green energy, and health care and involving three major Taiwanese actors: the government, the business community, and NGOs”. Rather than spending big on large-scale infrastructure projects, Taipei hopes to provide its Somali partner with extensive technical advisal and capacity building. As such, the ROC has already launched key projects including a five-year agricultural project aiming to improve Somaliland’s fruit and vegetable production with the help of a demonstration farm in Hargeisa’s outskirts, and a three-year technological project tasked with improving the country’s digital governance and cyber defence capabilities. In parallel, Taipei has already launched three crucial humanitarian projects covering maternal and infant healthcare and the distribution of personal protective equipment to contain the spread of COVID-19.
In a world supposedly dominated by rival great powers, the Somali-Taiwanese partnership illustrates the continued relevance of small state diplomacy in international relations. According to Cooper and Shaw, this practice can thrive assuming it meets the following conditions:
(a) they are essentially bilateral (one-on-one); (b) the smaller state commands the moral high ground such that it whips up domestic support and distorts the international media campaign in its favour […]; and (c) the issue at stake is essentially financial or economic.
The success of this diplomatic approach thus relies heavily on the ROC’s ability to project an image compatible with Western values, and to provide sustained flows of FDI, engaging with states bilaterally so as to remain below the PRC’s toleration threshold.
As such, while some of its historical partners in the Global South including Burkina Faso, São Tomé and Príncipe, El Salvador, Panama and the Dominican Republic have drifted towards the PRC in recent years, Taipei has made a significant breakthrough in the European Union (EU). Amid allegations of human rights violations in the Uighur-dominant region of Xinjiang, Lithuania has notably left the Sino-Eastern European 17+1 cooperation forum and established a de facto Taiwanese embassy in Vilnius on 18 November 2021. Despite Beijing’s decision to downgrade diplomatic ties with the Baltic state, the move has reportedly inspired Czech officials to follow suit.
While this small state diplomacy has provided the ROC with unique economic and political opportunities in recent months, the question remains as to how long this delicate balance can be maintained. Considering the continued expansion of the BRI worldwide – and with it, Beijing’s hard and soft power – the island will undeniably struggle to fend off its gargantuan neighbour at home and abroad.