Somaliland, China, Oil, and Legitimacy: A Potential Minefield of Issues

In today’s news about Somaliland, here is an update about the coming official visit of Somaliland’s president to China and the reasons for China’s friendliness.  Though I have already discussed the extreme friendliness of China towards Somaliland [1] and the importance of Somaliland’s oil in giving Somaliland some diplomatic leverage with other nations hungry for natural resources, which China certainly is [2], today I would like to talk about the problem of legitimacy in further detail to show the minefield of issues that weigh on the current situation.

CNOOC, China’s national oil firm, is seeking to directly negotiate with Somaliland in order to gain access to the oil fields within Somaliland’s territorial waters.  The firm had previously negotiated with Puntland and the Transitional National Council, but as they have no legitimate authority over Somaliland, and the oil was found to be in Somaliland territory, China has decided to negotiate with Somaliland itself.  It is clear that both sides have something to gain.  Somaliland can gain an ally with a permanent spot on the UN Security Council to support its interests and some development aid, and China can gain access to what is potentially a lot of oil.  So far it looks like an easy win-win arrangement, with a nation hungry for natural resources (China) working with a nation hungry for international aid and recognition (Somaliland).

There is a small hitch, however, and that is the legal concern.  Somaliland is still, after nearly 20 years of independence, with numerous free and fair elections and changes of power and the development of a legal and economic infrastructure largely on its own, still only a de facto state.  US-based oil companies still believe themselves to be the rightful owners of the oil fields in what is now Somaliland territory, despite their refusal to work with Somaliland, setting up what could be a nasty battle over whose fields they are.  Additionally, the results of the 1980’s exploration have been kept by a British firm named Furgo-Robertson [3] that has refused to give the information to the Somaliland government.

So, what can be done about it?  The way currently remains clear for oil companies in the US that still hold title to Somaliland’s oil fields, if they think the fields are really good ones, to influence the US Government to talk turkey with Somaliland about a timetable for recognition.  Oil is certainly a powerful bargaining chip and there have been plenty of other occasions in recent history where oil played a powerful role in American diplomacy.  The countries of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Iraq come to mind as nations where oil’s importance was vital.  And the US has supported and recognized breakway regions for access to oil before–Biafra in the 1960’s.  Somaliland is a vastly more viable state than Biafra ever was.  If the US wants to protect the interests of its oil fields, it can roll out the red carpet to Somaliland–it would not be that difficult to do so.

If the US is not interested in establishing and ratcheting up diplomatic relations with Somaliland, then the way remains clear for China to make Somaliland an offer they can’t refuse–I’m sure enough aid and diplomatic recognition could be offered by the Chinese to make it irrational for the Somaliland president to resist.  Somaliland could then pull some sort of “nationalization” of the property and then offer it for sale to China, if there was no better option available.  What this would mean as far as international law goes, I’m not sure, but it would seem as if a legitimate nation being completely ignored by the international community might not have the greatest amount of patience with regulations forced upon it by others who are not willing to grant it a fair hearing in the international arena.

There are only a few ways this minefield is going to be resolved–the quickest and easiest ways would be for the African Union and United Nations, with the support of nations like the United States, Great Britain, and China (all of whom have a vested interest in Somaliland), to develop a secure timeline for full international recognition for Somaliland independence with a recognized free and fair election with independent international monitoring allowing Somaliland (like Montenegro in 2006 and South Sudan in 2011) the chance to choose its own destiny as an independent nation.  The other ways that Somaliland could deal with the legal minefield is to with the support of China and China’s allies to “pull a Kosovo” with a unilaterial declaration of independence with a race to see how many nations recognize its independence to see when it would qualify for membership to international institutions.  A candid world awaits the diplomatic intrigue.



[3] “Fugro Robertson has gathered experience from all parts of this region over more than 35 years. Many analyses have been carried out as parts of large regional studies, including a multiclient sequence stratigraphy study completed in 2005. Also, in recent years, numerous wells have been analysed from the region and extensive sections have been analysed at wellsite in Somalia and Kenya.”


About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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8 Responses to Somaliland, China, Oil, and Legitimacy: A Potential Minefield of Issues

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  3. Tom says:

    China would not recognize Somaliland unless Somalia also did so. Non-recognition of breakaway regions is the most consistently and carefully applied principle of Chinese foreign relations over the past thirty years. This is done to protect its soverignty claim over Taiwan.

    For example, China recognizes Montenegro, since Serbia has agreed to let it go. However, China continues to recognize Serbian sovereignty over Kosovo, since Serbia continues to assert sovereignty. Likewise, China continued to recognize South Sudan as a part of Sudan, even as Chinese companies were pumping oil there. But after Sudan agreed to South Sudanese independence, China was happy to also do so.

    However, China is happy to do business with de facto governments in the absence of diplomatic relations. For example, China did not establish diplomatic relations with Israel until 1994, but began trading with Israel in the 1970s. Chinese ships transit the Panama Canal, even though Panama does not have diplomatic relations with China. This would be similar to the situation with Somaliland today.

    • Very wisely said. I’m impressed that China is so consistent with this rule. Other nations (like the United States and Russia) are not nearly so consistent when it comes to enforcing the rule against breakaway nations.

  4. Pingback: Somaliland, China, Oil, and Legitimacy » The Somaliland Globe

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