China is making too many friends. Xi Jinping and the Chinese Communist Party have shown that they are willing to spend hundreds of billions of dollars in developing countries, causing many nations to deepen their relations with China—a worrying development for those who support democracy and human rights.
Fortunately, some resist the Chinese attempts to buy political allies. One such group is the government of Somaliland, an autonomous region within Somalia that has been attempting to establish itself as an independent country for decades. While no country recognizes Somaliland as an independent state, America should be the first to do so. If the Biden Administration recognized Somaliland, America would gain an ally in a critical geostrategic region.
Somaliland's willingness to spurn China’s predatory aid is fairly unique in Africa. After a recent fire destroyed the largest market in Somaliland’s capital city, Hargeisa, China’s ambassador to Somalia, Fei Shengchao, offered to look for a way for China to provide relief to the suffering Somalilanders. Mr. Fei was supposed to visit Hargeisa, but the trip was suddenly canceled, and no emergency aid ever came.
This is because Somaliland’s government found out that there were strings attached to the proposed visit. Mr. Fei was not making the trip just to talk about emergency aid. Fei wanted to meet with opposition leaders and university students to find allies in Somaliland who would undermine the Taiwan-Somaliland relationship. Somaliland is one of two regions on the entire African continent where Taiwan holds diplomatic outposts, and Fei wanted to get that number down to one.
While they have rebuffed China’s advances, Somaliland has actively sought to ally with the United States. The president of Somaliland, Muse Bihi Abdi, took a recent trip to Washington D.C. where he met with Biden administration officials in an attempt to gain recognition for Somaliland. With the hope of deepening U.S.-Somaliland relations, the government of Somaliland has offered to allow the American military access to the geostrategically positioned Berbera port and airfield. Berbera port lies on the Gulf of Aden and overlooks crucial maritime trade routes.
Although America already has a permanent military base in Djibouti, which also abuts the Gulf of Aden, it would be prudent for them to set up a base at Berbera port as well. Djibouti has become increasingly influenced by Chinese financing, impeding America’s ability to conduct operations. Additionally, the Chinese were recently allowed to set up a military base in Djibouti, just miles away from the United States’ base. By recognizing Somaliland, America can reduce its reliance on Djibouti and strengthen its position in the critical East Africa region.
It is also important to note that by recognizing Somaliland, America would enjoy more benefits than just military security. Somaliland established informal diplomatic relations with Taiwan in 2020, indicating that a sovereign Somaliland would give Taiwan another global ally. This development would undoubtedly help the United States in its attempt to bolster Taiwan.
Somaliland has also been one of the most stable regions in East Africa for decades, at times even showing promising aspects of a functioning democracy. By recognizing its independence, America would be supporting a feeble democracy with the hopes of strengthening it in the near future.
Finally, formally recognizing Somaliland would strengthen America’s economic ties to the region. Unfortunately, Somaliland gets lumped in with their conflict-prone southern neighbor, which keeps them from receiving private sector investment. Suppose the United States formally recognized Somaliland as an independent state. In that case, the new nation could enjoy the benefits of foreign investment to a scale that was not previously available. This will bring economic growth to Somalilanders and deepen America's economic ties with East Africa.
Recognizing Somaliland would not be without potential costs—America would undoubtedly damage its relationship with Somalia. However, the United States derives minimal benefit from that relationship as it is. There is also the possibility that Somaliland will fall apart and become a failed state, but that seems unlikely given the fact that they have successfully governed themselves for the past 30 years. Other threats exist, but none of them outweighs the potential benefit of gaining a democratic ally in a region where China is making inroads.
Like it or not, the United States and China have entered a tentative Cold War, and the recognition of Somaliland by the American government would help the United States position itself to win this ideological battle. President Abdi has presented America with a golden opportunity, and America should take it.
Alexander Jelloian is a Young Voices Contributor and a Master’s Student at the London School of Economics and Political Science. His commentary has been published in International Policy Digest, InsideSources, HumanProgress, and other outlets. Follow him on Twitter @ajelloian