Beijing Just Reopened Its Embassy In Mogadishu
But Chinese involvement in Somalia goes back centuries
On Oct. 12, China officially reopened its embassy in Mogadishu, the capital of Somalia. The embassy had closed way back in 1991, when a civil war broke out—a war that continues to rage today, albeit mostly in remote rural areas.
The reopening signals improving security, as well as Beijing’s close ties to African governments. Chinese companies have flocked to the resource-rich continent in recent years, inking deals to flow raw materials to Chinese factories in exchange for strong investment in Africa’s infrastructure.
Lately, the Somali army and the African Union peacekeeping force AMISOM have been on the offensive, steadily liberating towns from the insurgent group Al Shabab.
That doesn’t mean the East African nation’s woes have ended. But it does mean ports and markets are bustling and goods are flowing like they haven’t in decades.
So it’s no surprise that the Chinese have decided to set up shop again in Mogadishu. Britain, Norway, and Turkey are also re-establishing diplomatic missions in the country.
But in many ways, the Chinese never left … with or without an embassy.
Interactions between Chinese and Somalis date as far back as the Middle Ages. Traders sailed between the two nations. The Chinese brought Somalis spices, silk and muskets. The Somalis exported to China incense, ivory and exotic animals including zebras.
The Somali merchants developed a good reputation in China and became the Middle Kingdom’s gateway to Africa. During the 1400s, Chinese admiral Zheng He twice visited Mogadishu during his voyages to the Middle East and Africa.
During the Cold War, Somalia aligned with the Soviet Union. But when the Soviets decided to back the Ethiopians instead of Somalia during the war between the two countries in 1977, Somali dictator Siad Barre expelled Soviet development advisers.
The Chinese, having had their own falling out with their onetime Soviet allies, sent their own advisers to Somalia to fill the void. Sino-Somali ties strengthened.
But Barre’s consolidation of power—and violent purges of government officials—embittered many Somalis, including officers in his military. In 1991, civil war erupted and Barre fell from power. The Somali army disbanded, its officers becoming warlords battling over land and resources.
As chaos spread, pretty much every country closed its embassy. Including China.
But even after Beijing shuttered its embassy, Chinese companies and ships still did occasional business in Somalia. In the 2000s, the Chinese government launched several development projects in Somalia. They were particularly active in the autonomous Puntland region—a relatively stable area compared to the rest of the country.
Puntland also happens to have a little bit of oil.
In 2007, the state-owned China National Offshore Oil Corporation signed an oil exploration agreement with the Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government. The firm’s engineers began looking for oil in Puntland’s Mudag province.
In 2008, as Somali pirates threatened trade routes in the Indian Ocean, Beijing dispatched warships to the Gulf of Aden. The Chinese ships patrolled alongside vessels from the U.S., Japan and Europe. Despite tensions in the Pacific, in the Indian Ocean the Chinese navy seemed to play nice with other navies.
In 2012 after decades of war, Somalia’s new federal government formed. Beijing pledged its support, offering a generous aid package and promising to help restore Mogadishu landmarks including the National Theater and the city’s stadium. Chinese officials expressed particular interest in Somalia’s energy infrastructure.
Doing all of that will be a lot easier now that China has an embassy in the country.