In August 2020, media outlets began reporting on the development of negotiations held between President Muse Bihi Abdi of Somaliland and a delegation of Chinese officials. China’s exploration of bilateral relations with the self-declared state of Somaliland seemed to represent the latest instance of China engaging with a recipient regime on the African continent. However, whilst dominant discourses portray China as a powerful and predatory actor in these negotiations, there is growing evidence that this framing ignores the adept foreign policy moves that African leaders frequently utilise with foreign donors.
The case of Somaliland
In the Somaliland case, the Chinese delegation presented plans to support the region with a package of development financing to build roads, develop an airport, and establish a Liaison Office to continue bilateral relations between the two states. In return, the Chinese delegation placed a demand upon President Bihi that he discontinue relations with Taiwan. Instead of acquiescing and receiving this package of support, it has been reported in multiple news outlets that President Bihi refused this offer. Somaliland would instead commit to further engagement with Taiwan. Further news reports indicated that this was then carried out, with a delegation from Somaliland arriving in Taiwan on the 9th August, in advance of the two countries formally declaring recognition of each other.
This meeting represented the opposite of what outside observers might expect from an African state’s dealings with China. Reports in Western media often claim that China is a ‘predator state’ across Africa, a powerful actor capable of entrapping African government in deals with unsustainable loans, requiring collateral in the form of material assets, such as ports and access to rare material deposits in recipient states. This process, named ‘debt trap diplomacy’ in Western media, has been frequently highlighted as a sign of the danger that Chinese loans represent for recipient African countries. Occasional examples of this process occurring have emerged, such as in Sri Lanka, where a Chinese-constructed port was given to China after Sri Lanka defaulted on its debts.
Whilst the extent and threat that ‘debt-trap diplomacy’ represents for recipient African states has been debunked in a recent article by Deborah Brautigam, this has not abated fears amongst politicians, particularly in the US. As claims of a ‘new Cold War’ with China appear, US officials including former National Security Advisor John Bolton, and current Secretary of State Mike Pompeo frequently discuss the threat China represents. They have described China’s negotiating process in Africa as misleading, with African recipients unintentionally ending up in debt to China.
However, the discourse of ‘predatory China’ ignores the ability that African states have in shaping discussions with China and other potential donors, alongside pursuing their own preferences through foreign policy discussions. The Somaliland case represents the latest example in this regard. Whilst China may supply the finance, materials, and manpower to develop projects across the African continent, such as the Addis-Djibouti Railway in East Africa, or the construction of oil refining and extracting infrastructure in Nigeria, it is important to remember that China needs Africa, just as much as Africa benefits from China’s investment into the continent. African officials are acutely aware that they have something that China wants, be it diplomatic prestige, or precious materials such as oil and rare minerals. These desirable assets are leveraged repeatedly by African officials in discussions with China and other potential donors.
For example, African states often play a vital role in increasing the diplomatic prestige of China on the world stage. The African group within the UN represents 54 states who often coordinate on votes. They constitute a powerful voting bloc, and therefore are a key target for Chinese engagement. China’s past efforts at courting this diplomatic group have allowed it to block resolutions aimed at criticising China’s human rights record, or to elect officials to positions within the UN beneficial for China. In the past, African officials have leveraged the importance of their diplomatic weight in order to garner greater benefits from China; a recent article by Carmody et al. demonstrates how the foreign policy positions of African states has paradoxically moved more towards that of the US even though trade with China increases. Instead of aligning with China at the UN, African states seek to gain greater benefits and maintain autonomy by asking for greater trade benefits from China, whilst also positioning themselves as advantageous for the US to engage with.
Leveraging African agency
African officials also frequently highlight the importance of their state to regional stability, or as a strategic asset for potential donors, including China and Western states. Ethiopian officials have argued that they require assistance from Western powers to continue operations as part of the War on Terror in the Horn of Africa, whilst also engaging with China under the same auspices of stability in an effort to gain favourable economic benefits. Somaliland, as the most recent example has highlighted its strategic importance within the Horn of Africa region as a potential military site for international powers to combat piracy from, again protecting their economic interests.
Somaliland’s rebuke of Chinese efforts at engagement is the latest example of African diplomatic leverage in action. In this case, the Chinese delegation could not provide, or were not wishing to provide, what Somaliland officials desired. Taiwanese delegates had provided what Beijing wouldn’t, namely diplomatic recognition of Somaliland. China was unable to commit to this diplomatic recognition in light of other recent events, such as its crackdown on autonomy for Hong Kong.
Whilst China was perhaps put in a difficult position with regard to establishing ties with Somaliland, its reaction to these developments was sharp, with rhetoric and threats used to discourage Somaliland from engaging with Taiwan. However, President Bihi was able to emerge from these discussions in an advantageous position, exercising his ability to pick and choose which actors to engage with, and in what ways. Somaliland represents a clear example of African officials directly rejecting multiple attempts by China to engage, because they have been offered better prospects elsewhere.
The Somaliland delegation highlighted multiple reasons for engaging with Taiwan over China. Both Somaliland and Taiwan consider themselves to be democratic bastions within their respective regions, with Somaliland politicians expressing reservations over engaging with autocratic China. As mentioned above, Taiwan also offered diplomatic recognition, in a move that China could not make. Taiwan has provided development financing for several infrastructural projects, alongside education opportunities for Somaliland students. Crucially, establishing relations with Taiwan provided an opportunity to engage with other Western donors including the US, who are pressing for African governments to sever relations with China.
Recipient African countries are therefore capable of shaping their relationship with external states, utilising their diplomatic, strategic, and material importance for both China and alternative donors to garner the best benefits. This scenario is likely to increase into the future, as multitudes of new and re-emerging actors court African governments. Whilst Western donors are keen to engage with African states, they are also becoming valuable for several other actors who are seeking to make inroads on the continent. For example, Russia held its first Russia-Africa summit in October 2019, whilst Israel and the Gulf States have recently increased their engagement in the Horn of Africa.
This further diversification increases the leveraging abilities of African governments. As has been seen in Somaliland, officials have become adept at pursuing their preferences and gaining benefits from the list of donors keen to engage with governments across the continent. Over the past few years, the examples presented highlight how the discourse of China as a predatory state is misleading, and betrays the adept foreign policy moves that African governments frequently take with donors.
Daniel Munday is a PhD student in the International Development Department at the University of Birmingham. His research focuses on Ethiopian government engagement with the non-Western autocracies of Russia and China.