Somaliland’s eastern city of Las Anod has experienced an outbreak of violence that is approaching its second month. Far from spontaneous, the fight between Somaliland on one hand and various forces associated with Somalia on the other increasingly appears to be a proxy conflict launched by China. Beijing wants to punish one of the only two African states that recognize Taiwan rather than the People’s Republic of China.
The Pentagon’s decision to cancel military exercises in the Somaliland port of Berbera even while publicizing the delivery of 61 tons of weaponry to a force allegedly complicit in attacking Somaliland throws fuel on the fire.
In Somaliland’s context, it signals the danger of any alliance with Washington. Perception and optics matter.
While the U.S. Embassy in Mogadishu may define the fight narrowly in terms of the dispute between Somalia and Somaliland, Beijing’s focus is more strategic. If its tactics work in Somaliland, it likely will replicate them elsewhere.
Beyond Somaliland, the only other state in Africa that defies Beijing and recognizes Taiwan is Eswatini, formerly known as Swaziland. Eswatini, an absolute monarchy, has long been stable, but China has deep ties to neighboring Mozambique. Beijing Mozambique’s Marxist FRELIMO party against the country’s pre-1975 Portuguese dispensation.
While Mozambique-Eswatini relations are both long and cooperative, a more aggressive China could work to destabilize the monarchy from Mozambique if the Eswatini king does not reconsider his pro-Taiwan position. South Africa would object, but Eswatini is not as much a satellite of its larger neighbor as some imagine. There are occasional territorial disputes that China could use as leverage if South Africa grew too vocal.
Nor is China’s willingness to make countries offers they cannot refuse limited to Africa. In 2019, a combination of pressure and bribery led the Solomon Islands to sever ties with Taiwan and switch its allegiance to Beijing. The Solomon Islands’ relations with Australia were, at the time, analogous to the closeness of Eswatini and South Africa.
The point is that China no longer observes long-standing red lines. If such violence works, Taiwan-friendly states in the Caribbean could be targets for destabilization. No one in Beijing believes that U.S. President Joe Biden will intervene militarily in the Caribbean in the way that Ronald Reagan did to reverse Cuban and Soviet moves on Grenada.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken may not believe Somaliland matters, and Larry Andre, Jr., may concern himself primarily with assuaging the government of Somalia, the country to which he is America’s ambassador. What is at stake today, however, could be much broader.
Upon entering office, Biden promised that “diplomacy is back.” That may be enough when it comes to Europe, but the United States will lose if the White House and State Department fail to recognize that China and other revisionist states do not play by Washington’s rules.
Now a 1945 Contributing Editor, Dr. Michael Rubin is a Senior Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI). Dr. Rubin is the author, coauthor, and coeditor of several books exploring diplomacy, Iranian history, Arab culture, Kurdish studies, and Shi’ite politics, including “Seven Pillars: What Really Causes Instability in the Middle East?” (AEI Press, 2019); “Kurdistan Rising” (AEI Press, 2016); “Dancing with the Devil: The Perils of Engaging Rogue Regimes” (Encounter Books, 2014); and “Eternal Iran: Continuity and Chaos” (Palgrave, 2005).