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ModernDiplomacy.eu: Ambitious China gears up to flex power in the conflict-riven Horn of Africa

Posted by: Berhane Habtemariam

Date: Tuesday, 01 February 2022

With the announcement to appoint a special envoy to the Horn of Africa, China has entered the “Scramble for Africa.” The stated objective of China’s ambitious political move is to foster peace in the conflict-riven East African “corner.” However, as foreign affairs analysts point out, the real Chinese aim is to gain momentum against the US in the world’s second largest continent.  

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Year 2022. First week. Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi kept up his usual date with Africa – a tradition dating back thirty-two years by which Chinese foreign ministers open the diplomatic year with a trip to the world’s second largest continent. But this year’s new-yearly visit to Africa by the Chinese foreign minister was rather unusual. Wang declared at a press briefing during the Africa tour in the Kenyan port city of Mombasa that “China plans to appoint a special envoy to the Horn of Africa.” Both analysts and observers of China’s Africa policy have been surprised by the timing of Wang’s visit to the Horn as also by his announcing that Beijing was ready to proactively mediate some of the region’s conflicts.    

Horn of Africa and the US and its Western allies

The Horn of Africa – located in the easternmost corner of the African continent, takes its name from the horn-shaped land formation at the southern end of the Red Sea and on the Gulf of the Aden. Five of the region’s seven countries – the Sudan, Eritrea, Djibouti, Somalia and landlocked Ethiopia, are situated looking into the Indian Ocean south of the Arabian Peninsula. Located on the main shipping route for the transport of oil from the Persian Gulf to Europe and the United States, the Horn of Africa is considered one of the most strategically important regions in the world. Sadly the region is endowed with rivers, lakes, forests and livestock, and has untapped rich deposits of natural resources including gold, petroleum, salt and natural gas etc. Yet its two hundred million people remain one of the poorest on the earth.

Besides, with its unique strategic location, the Horn of Africa has long been experiencing flare-ups of hot issues and eruptions of conflicts and confrontations. According to Amir Idris, professor and chair, Department of African and African American Studies at New York’s Fordham University, during the Cold War days, national strategic interest and not political and economic development was the primary focus of the US in the region. “Consequently, the entanglement of cultural and political history, the complex socioeconomic formations, and the competing ethnic and regional actors and visions in the region have been given less attention in the process of conceiving strategies and policies,” professor Idris observed in a recent article in The Hill.

The other reason the US and other major Western powers active in the region focused only on building the security apparatus of states was on containing communist encroachment. In the post- Cold War period, as several African analysts have pointed out, US policy increasingly became static and lacked strategy and coherence. In ensuing years, following a string of terrorist attacks between 1998 bombings on US embassy in Kenya and Tanzania and 2001 “9.11” attacks, “disrupting local Islamic extremists linked to a global jihadi network became superseding objective of the US and its Western allies in the region.” As a result of such a narrow policy approach, the US has been pursuing the mantra “either you are with us or against us” in coaxing countries to choose sides in a conflict which did not offer neutrality as a position. “But combating terrorism and promoting trade held pre-eminence [for the US and its Western allies] over all pretence of interest in addressing what Africans deemed to be more pressing priorities,” opined Gabriel Negatu, a non-resident fellow at the Washington-based Africa Centre and a former Eastern Africa director general for the African Development Bank.

China “Scramble for the Horn of Africa”

The US failure to reset its Africa policy in order to address growing trouble in the restive region of the Horn of Africa partly explains why countries in the region have been turning towards China. In three major countries in the region – Kenya, Sudan and Ethiopia – the US is now being outstripped by China in various ways. Ethiopia’s case is particularly interesting because the region’s largest country both in size and in population, has historically been a US proxy state for decades. It was not until a few years ago that Ethiopia was called as “Washington’s cop on the beat for the Horn of Africa.”

But why has China suddenly put its focus on the Horn of Africa – arguably among the most crisis ridden parts in Africa? In the white paper Beijing released on 26 November last year entitled “China and Africa in the New Era: A Partnership of Equals,” it was claimed that shared past experiences and similar aims and goals have brought China and Africa closer together. “Besides China being Africa’s largest trading partner since 2009,” the white paper proudly put forward the principles of Xi Jinping’s Africa Policy in the New Era that “China is the largest developing country in the world and Africa is the continent with the largest number of developing countries.” One week later, a worldpoliticsreview.com report on the eighth edition of the triennial forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) held in Dakar, Senegal and written by influential commentator Chris Olaoluwa Ogunmodede, nearly echoed the Chinese white paper saying “Africa seeks a more equitable partnership with China.”     

Timing of Wang Yi’s visit and China’s definitely well-calculated announcement to send a special envoy to the Horn of Africa must also be viewed in the context of the recent rise in “jostling for influence” among foreign powers active in the region. Additionally, more than the timing, what surprised many is the unusually direct statements by Wang Yi in Mombasa, Kenya on January 6 about why China plans to have a Horn to Africa special envoy. While Wang said conflicts hampered the region’s “tremendous potential for development” and such a situation “should not be allowed to continue.” [My emphasis] However, Wang’s undisguised and overt declaration to flex China’s political power in the war-torn zone is being interpreted as Beijing becoming impatient to play a bigger role in the region’s politics and security. Moreover, notwithstanding “wolf warrior” style aggressive foreign policy posture recently, Wang’s explicit assertion is also being contrasted with China’s diplomats generally speaking in more general terms.

The US fearful of being outstripped by China

Interestingly, experts in China have typically welcomed the move as showing the country’s responsibility of being a major country and its constructive role in the conflict-torn region. Li Wentao, deputy director of China’s influential think tank, China Institute of Contemporary International Relations (CICIR), has welcomed the move, saying “China’s special envoy could engage in shuttle diplomacy in the region and contribute China’s wisdom and approach to solving problems. China is trusted by all the countries in the Horn of Africa,” Li noted. Another researcher at the Chinese foreign ministry’s leading think tank, China Institute of International Studies (CIIS), Professor Zeng Aiping, was even more forthright in applauding the initiative. “It [the move] will encourage the Horn of Africa to strengthen exchanges on national governance and overcome governance bottlenecks,” Aiping observed.  

In contrast, some analysts in Africa have raised questions about the effectiveness of China’s role in resolving political conflicts in the region. Despite making several promises last year to try to reach a solution that meets the interests of the three parties – Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan – over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) crisis, China has been perceived as a big disappointment, especially by Cairo. Salah Halima, deputy chairman of the Egyptian Council for African Affairs reacted to the announcement by Wang Yi, saying: “[We expect] the Chinese envoy to resolve the conflict over the Niles water  by taking the initiative to deter any new threat to regional security as a result of Ethiopia’s unilateral actions in the GERD.” Likewise, in the words of Ahmed Aksar, a researcher at Al-Ahram Centre for Strategic Political Studies, “China’s move to appoint a Horn of Africa envoy, if successful, would strengthen China’s international and regional sway at the expense of Washington.”

To sum up, though observers in India reckon Wang Yi’s this diplomatic year’s 5-nation tour – crowned with Horn of Africa special envoy announcement – was aimed at challenging and countering India’s pre-eminent role in the region. Yet the fact is China and the United States have been for some years – especially since China set up military base in Djibouti – locked in competition for influence in Africa. More significantly, the reason why China is becoming a more attractive investor to African nations than the US and its Western allies is, China does not “view aid in terms of loans” and instead calls it “mutually beneficial cooperation” or “win-win investment.” In other words, as Eric Draitser, a US-based political analyst has rather succinctly put it: the US is deeply concerned that it will lose its foothold in the Horn of Africa if Kenya or the Sudan or Ethiopia become direct allies with China. So, what the US has chosen to do is to check Chinese economic penetration in the region, as also all over the continent, with military penetration.


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