28.03.2024 Author: Viktor Goncharov

The Horn of Africa in the quagmire of geopolitical rivalry Part Seven: China’s Stakes in the Horn of Africa

China's Stakes in the Horn of Africa

As for China, the second global player in the region, although it has not openly interfered in Ethiopian affairs until recently, its weight and influence are very much felt here and are likely to increase. The American financial group Morgan Stanley estimates that the total cost of China’s “One Belt, One Road” project will rise to $1.2-1.3 trillion by 2027 alone.

As Beijing sees the Horn of Africa as the “gateway to Africa” in the implementation of this project, Ethiopia, as the continent’s second most populous country with a huge domestic market, becomes the most suitable partner for the construction of major new infrastructure and industrial facilities.

As China’s most important economic and trade partner, Ethiopia is among the top five recipients of Chinese investment on the continent. It accounts for 14 per cent of Ethiopia’s exports and 30 per cent of its imports.

In previous years, during the long rule of the TPLF, Beijing invested $14 billion in Ethiopia’s economy, the main beneficiaries of which were the Tigrayan elite who ruled the country indiscriminately from 1993 to 2018.

One of the biggest projects was a $3.4 billion railway upgrade linking Ethiopia to the ports of neighbouring Djibouti, 70 per cent of which was financed by the PRC. Then, following the normalisation of Ethiopian-Eritrean relations in 2018, for which Abiy Ahmed won the Nobel Peace Prize at the behest of the Americans, China acquired two major gold, copper and zinc mines in Eritrea and upgraded the port of Massawa.

China is currently implementing some 400 projects in various sectors in Ethiopia at a total cost of more than $4 billion, employing some 30,000 Chinese workers and professionals. Much of the country’s air, road and railway infrastructure is being built, upgraded and financed by Chinese companies. By building roads, industrial parks and other infrastructure across Ethiopia, China is trying to present Sino-Ethiopian economic cooperation as a model for other African countries.

And according to some researchers, Chinese investment fits well with Ethiopia’s industrialisation strategy of improving infrastructure and developing an export-oriented manufacturing sector, leading to increased Chinese prestige.

According to the Belgian publication Modern Diplomacy, this has left the United States far behind China in the region’s three most important countries – Ethiopia, Sudan and Kenya – despite Ethiopia’s recent reputation as “the American policeman on the Horn of Africa’s doorstep”.

As a result, the publication continues, as noted in a policy paper entitled “China and Africa in the New Era: A Partnership of Equals”, published by Beijing in November 2021, their relationship is based on shared historical experiences and similar development goals. “In addition to being Africa’s largest trading partner since 2009,” the document stresses, “China is the world’s largest developing country, and Africa is the continent with the largest number of developing countries.

China’s genuine interest in Africa was evident in the congratulatory message sent by Chinese President Xi Jinping to the 37th Assembly of Heads of State and Government of the African Union in Addis Ababa on 19 February this year. Noting that “today’s Global South, including China and Africa, is increasingly influencing the course of world history”, the Chinese leader invited African leaders to develop a new format for China-Africa cooperation.

In terms of military cooperation, the agreement provides for the training of Ethiopian military personnel and the exchange of military technology. Much of the heavy military equipment used by the Ethiopian army is Russian-made. But Ethiopia recently bought a large consignment of artillery, vehicles and UAVs from China.

Ultimately, as experts at the American Institute of Peace sadly note, economic, political and military ties seem to have taken their toll on Beijing when Abiy Ahmed, in a general assessment of the state of Sino-Ethiopian relations, called China “Ethiopia’s most trusted friend and most welcome partner”.

According to Indian experts, the reason why China is becoming a more attractive investor for African countries than the US and its allies is that China “does not see aid only in terms of loans” but offers “win-win investments”.

This is why, as the American political scientist E. Draitser notes, the US fears that it will lose its strategic bridgehead in the Horn of Africa if Ethiopia or Sudan become direct allies of China. It therefore sees its main objective as containing not only China’s military but also its economic presence.

As for the recent conflict that erupted after Ethiopia and Somaliland signed the aforementioned memorandum, many experts believe that Beijing is officially neutral on the issue. At the same time, they argue that while China’s main ally in the Horn of Africa is Ethiopia, where it has huge economic interests, it is not so keen to criticise Addis Ababa in Somalia. Here, China has limited itself to fishing in coastal waters and fighting piracy with two frigates and a supply ship.

The calm approach to the issue is reflected in the tone of a rather terse statement by a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman, in which the Chinese side reaffirmed “respect for Somalia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity”. He also expressed the hope that “countries in the region will find a negotiated solution to the problems through mutual cooperation”.

Ethiopia-China relations received a boost last year. By signing an agreement with Beijing on 17 October 2023 to move from “comprehensive strategic cooperation” to an “all-weather strategic partnership”, Ethiopia raised its relationship with China to a higher level.

Ethiopia’s ambassador to China, Teferi Deribew, deciphered the content of his country’s new status, stressing that it opens up great new opportunities for increased cooperation in the economic, defence and security fields. For her part, the Prime Minister’s spokeswoman, Billene Seyoum, points out that the term “all-weather friends” means that the two sides will guarantee each other’s security at all times of the year, regardless of the weather.

According to her, China also expressed its willingness to provide all-round assistance to help rebuild the economies of war-affected regions and reduce foreign debt. The two sides also agreed to strengthen cross-party relations.

In addition, according to a press release issued by the Chinese Embassy in Addis Ababa, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed expressed his willingness to coordinate the implementation of Ethiopia’s 10-year economic development and reform plan with China’s “One Belt, One Road” project.

In mid-December of the same year, Xue Bin, China’s special envoy to the Horn of Africa, who mediated the Tigray peace agreement in Pretoria in October 2022 on the Chinese side, visited Ethiopia to work out specific issues of interaction under the 17 October 2023 agreement.

The post was created by Beijing in early 2022. Its introduction, according to experts, should be seen as his desire to play a more active role in resolving conflicts that undermine the “enormous development potential” of countries in the region, and, as one noted, to bring “wisdom and a Chinese approach” to their resolution.

And the field of activity for it here is vast. Apart from Ethiopia, Somalia, Djibouti and Eritrea are also of great interest to China here, whose strategic position on local sea lanes is a source of fierce competition for many external players.

This can be seen in particular in the two-day visit to Eritrea in January 2022 by Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, during which he announced $15.7 million in aid to Asmara and the establishment of “strategic relations” between the two countries. The Chinese minister also criticised the imposition of US sanctions against Eritrea for its active participation in the civil war against the Tigray People’s Liberation Front on the side of the Ethiopian government.

In Addis Ababa, he met with the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs, Demeke Mekonnen, as well as the chiefs of the Tigray and Afar regions, where armed clashes between local militias that do not want to be integrated into the Ethiopian armed forces and the regular army have taken place.

In this context, it cannot be ruled out that, in addition to discussing economic cooperation, the disarmament of armed groups in accordance with the Pretoria Peace Agreement of November 2022 was also considered. According to the Hong Kong-based SCMP, the Chinese representative in Tigray’s capital Mekelle also discussed the completion of the Giba dam for the city’s water supply, which has been halted due to hostilities.

In short, in the midst of current US sanctions pressure on Ethiopia, Addis Ababa is sending a clear message to Washington (for which Chinese influence in the country is, as one US publication put it, “a pure nightmare”) that it intends to take full advantage of emerging opportunities to solve its complex domestic and foreign policy problems through closer cooperation with its “all-weather” partner. And this seems to be one of the main reasons for the current crisis in the Horn of Africa.


Viktor GONCHAROV, african expert, candidate of sciences in economics, especially for online magazine “New Eastern Outlook

Related articles: