Date: Monday, 27 March 2023
Ethiopia, China and the US map rival roads to lasting peace
6:00am, 27 Mar, 2023
• US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and China’s special envoy, Xue Bing, had a similar agenda in Addis Ababa but different stances on ending hostilities
• China has been a key supporter of the Ethiopian government, partly because of its significance as the seat of the African Union and strategic location
When US Secretary of State Antony Blinken arrived in Addis Ababa late on March 14 , China’s special envoy for the Horn of Africa, Xue Bing, had already held meetings with some Ethiopian government officials.
Both diplomats had a similar agenda: to help implement the peace agreement that ended the two-year Tigray war and to strengthen bilateral relations with Ethiopia.
But the approaches taken by the two global superpowers to end hostilities in Ethiopia have been starkly different.
Civil war erupted in November 2020 after the leftist Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) was accused of attacking a military base in the northern part of the country. In the bloody conflict that followed, the US cut aid and suspended Ethiopia from the Africa Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) – which provides African countries with duty-free access to US markets – over alleged human rights violations by Ethiopian forces.
On November 2, the Ethiopian federal government and the TPLF signed the Cessation of Hostilities Agreement to end the conflict.
Blinken welcomed the signing of the peace treaty, terming it a “major achievement and step forward”.
But while meeting both Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and representatives of Tigrayan rebels, he pushed for accountability for the atrocities perpetrated by all parties.
“We urge Ethiopians to follow through on their commitments to each other to implement an inclusive and comprehensive transitional justice process that includes both reconciliation and accountability,” Blinken said while announcing US$331 million in new humanitarian aid for Ethiopia.
Now, the US insists that Ethiopia must meet certain conditions, such as fully implementing the peace agreement, if it is to be reinstated into the AGOA.
Blinken said Ethiopia had clear benchmarks for a pathway towards reinstatement. “With the cessation of hostilities agreement, and particularly with its implementation, that’s extremely important in moving down that path, and my hope and expectation is that it will continue,” he said.
However, China considers the US sanctions as interference in the internal affairs of Ethiopia. While Xue was in Addis Ababa he said China had always believed that the Tigray conflict was Ethiopia’s domestic affair and should be resolved by the Ethiopian people through negotiation and dialogue.
In a thinly veiled attack on the US, he said “China opposes interference in other countries’ sovereignty and domestic affairs in the name of humanitarianism and human rights”.
The special envoy said China supported the efforts of parties in Ethiopia to achieve national peace, unity and development through the China-proposed “Outlook on Peace and Development in the Horn of Africa” initiative.
Chinese state news agency Xinhua reported that Xue called on the international community to increase humanitarian aid to Ethiopia, lift unilateral sanctions and support reconstruction.
Starting from March 1, China granted zero tariff treatment to 98 per cent of tariff lines on products from Ethiopia, opening up a new export front for Addis Ababa after it lost access to the US market.
Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said Xue’s visit to Ethiopia was “to maintain close communication with regional countries on behalf of China on advancing the implementation of the initiative for peace and development in the Horn of Africa, and support regional countries in realising development”.
Wang said countries should “take concrete steps that benefit Ethiopia’s development and regional peace, rather than arbitrarily resort to sanction and coercion, or interfere in other countries’ internal affairs on hotspot issues”.
China has been a key supporter of the Ethiopian government, partly because of the country’s geopolitical significance as the seat of the African Union, as well as its strategic location in the Horn of Africa.
David Shinn, an expert on China-Africa relations at George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs and former US ambassador to Ethiopia, said China took the position that it was up to the Ethiopians to end the conflict and solve their differences.
“China encouraged dialogue but, to the best of my knowledge, never engaged actively in an effort to end the conflict,” Shinn said.
He said the US, when the fighting was at its worst and seemed to have no end in sight, threatened sanctions against all sides, removed Ethiopia from eligibility to US Africa Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) benefits, withheld some help, and sanctioned several Eritrean individuals.
“Behind the scenes, it [the US] worked hard in support of African Union efforts to bring the central government and the Tigrayan forces to the negotiating table, which eventually happened in South Africa,” Shinn said.
However, he said China’s Outlook on Peace and Development in the Horn of Africa did not appear to be making much impact.
“Encouraging dialogue is harmless, but it does not get you very far in this part of the world,” Shinn said.
According to John Calabrese, director of the Middle East-Asia project at the Middle East Institute, in light of China’s success in brokering of the rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Iran, Beijing was eager to maintain the momentum of its “peacemaking” efforts while Washington was determined to up its diplomatic game.
Lukas Fiala, coordinator of China Foresight at LSE Ideas, a think tank at the London School of Economics, said after the widely reported Iran-Saudi deal, for which China largely took credit, it seemed Beijing was keen to keep up the framing of China as a responsible major power in the wider region.
Fiala said while China certainly benefited from stability in the Horn of Africa, it was not necessarily pivotal in bringing about the agreement between the TPLF and Addis Ababa. Rather, regional actors including the African Union played the key role, he said.
“This is emblematic of China’s general approach to intrastate conflict abroad as Beijing generally tries to avoid setting the agenda while enabling regional stakeholders to conduct the bulk of the actual negotiations,” Fiala said.
He said given China’s significant economic footprint in the wider Horn, however, Beijing might be able to provide further, long-term incentives for the two parties – the central government and the TPLF – to maintain stability.
Fiala said during the last years of the conflict in central and northern Ethiopia, China supported Abiy Ahmed’s central government.
“This was in line with China’s strong belief in sovereignty and couched in rhetoric of non-interference. In late 2021, when Western countries warned of Ethiopia’s potential collapse, China largely signalled business as usual and stayed put,” Fiala said.
“Beijing is surely keen to remind everyone of this decision to further consolidate its strong diplomatic relationship with Ethiopia, while using the opportunity to critique US engagement.”
Seifudein Adem, an Ethiopian global affairs professor at Doshisha University in Japan, said the overlapping visits of Antony Blinken and Xue Bing sharply highlighted the belief that the US and China were rivals for influence in Africa and that their bilateral contest had begun in earnest.
He said overall, the periodic shifts in emphasis in the US policy towards Africa, which followed changing administrations in Washington, gave rise to a persistent and widespread perception in Africa that China’s approach was more sustainable in the long term.
“China’s diplomacy in Africa is also seen as more comprehensive and coherent. These views are shared in Ethiopia, too,” Adem said.
Liselotte Odgaard, a professor at the Norwegian Institute for Defence Studies and senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, said one of the US’ main concerns was China’s enhanced focus on security in the Global South.
She said China sought to strengthen its security position in regions such as Africa, the Middle East, Latin America and the South Pacific, as relations with the West deteriorated.
“This policy does not merely involve defence and police cooperation, but also Chinese ambitions to play the role of peacemaker as an alternative to the West in general and the US in particular,” Odgaard said.
She said China was well positioned to do this in many Global South countries where it had a long-standing economic presence and in contrast to the US and Europe, it had no governance policy requiring it to promote values such as human rights and democracy.
“In some countries, China is therefore seen as more neutral, as confirmed by China’s successful mediation between Iran and Saudi Arabia, at least in the short term,” Odgaard said.
However, she said mediating in war-torn Ethiopia was a much more difficult task because of the complexity of the conflicting groups.