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Ethiopia returns to claim an outlet on the Red Sea, against the backdrop of pressure from China

Posted by: Semere Asmelash

Date: Thursday, 19 October 2023

Ethiopia returns to claim an outlet on the Red Sea, against the backdrop of pressure from China

The country has not had access since 1993, the year of Eritrea's independence

Addis Ababa

© Agenzia Nova - Reproduction reserved

The age-old question relating to the claims ofEthiopia to get an outlet to Red Sea, an objective precluded since 1993, the year of the independence oferitrea. Since then the matter has seen ups and downs, and forcefully returned to the fore during a parliamentary session held on 13 October. On that occasion, a draft document was presented, drawn up by the Ministry of Peace, which aims to reaffirm Ethiopia's national strategic and economic interests in the Red Sea
Entitled "Ethiopia's national interest: principles and contents”, the document underlines the “urgency” for the Horn of Africa country to exercise its right to build and use ports, to have access to the Red Sea as well as the Eden and Gulf Peninsula regions. The Horn of Africa and the Red Sea region have become “a magnet” for the interests of competing superpowers, the document reads, therefore Ethiopia “should engage with other nations in the area to ensure its access to ports and be able to overcome geostrategic obstacles in this regard, the draft document notes, before such actions begin to impede the development of the region.”
The document then provides a list of priorities, including preserving the country's territorial integrity, strengthening regional influence, promoting peace and security, effectively advancing Ethiopia's interests in the Red Sea area and the Gulf Peninsula and the promotion of pan-African development. Priorities also include building bilateral and multilateral relations based on "sound principles", guaranteeing Ethiopia's right to use the Nile River, access to ports and optimizing the use of untapped natural resources . The document also states that the African Union should have ultimate authority over Africa's water resources, seas and ocean coasts.
Speaking in parliament, the prime minister Abiy Ahmed reiterated Ethiopia's right to have an outlet to the sea. “The Red Sea and the Nile River define Ethiopia; they are the basis for its development or its disappearance,” said the prime minister, repeating the same concepts in an interview broadcast by the state broadcaster “Fana”. “The Nile and the Red Sea determine the future of Ethiopia. They will contribute to its development or its disappearance", added the prime minister, claiming the alleged Ethiopian "natural rights" regarding direct access to the Red Sea, and stating that if this were denied to him "there will be no equity and justice". “It's a matter of time, we will fight,” he then threatened.

The declarations were clearly not liked by neighboring Eritrea which, despite having signed - for essentially tactical reasons - a historic peace agreement with the rival country in July 2018, has recently seen relations with Addis Ababa worsen again, especially after the end of the war in Tigray which saw the two countries fight together against the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF). Eritrea "was not involved" in the talks hoped for by the Ethiopian prime minister on access to the Red Sea, the Eritrean government spokesperson was keen to point out, Yemane Meskel, adding that the issue “has left all interested observers perplexed.” The spokesperson then defined as "excessive" the "talks" on access to the sea and other related topics "that have emerged in recent times".

In recent days, the affair has also involved neighboring Somalia, which rejected Ethiopia's request to start talks to gain access to the sea. When asked to establish a dialogue on the topic, the Somali Foreign Minister Ali Omar responded bluntly that "the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Somalia - land, sea and air - as enshrined in our Constitution, are sacrosanct and are not subject of discussion”, and this although his country “is committed to strengthening peace, security, trade and integration”. In short, Mogadishu does not seem interested in providing access to a strategic resource such as a port, and would not even be interested in exchange for participation in other infrastructure projects: this is the case, for example, of the Great Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (Gerd ), of which - according to some press sources - Prime Minister Ahmed even proposed to cede some shares to Mogadishu in exchange for the longed-for access to the sea.

Since the closure of access to the sea following Eritrea's independence in 1993, Ethiopia has depended on neighboring Djibouti for more than 85 percent of its imports and exports. For Addis Ababa, access to the sea becomes even more urgent if framed in the relaunch of the Belt and Road Initiative - BRI, the maxi infrastructure project promoted by China, Ethiopia's solid partner. Without ports under its jurisdiction, Addis Ababa risks being left out of a strategic project and, more generally, seeing the influence it can exert on the region in the infrastructural field weakened.

It is no coincidence that, during his visit to Beijing this week to participate in the third BRI Forum, Prime Minister Ahmed managed to obtain the Chinese promise to invest more in Ethiopian industrial parks, as well as a meeting with the President Xi Jinping in which the two leaders announced the elevation of the partnership between the two countries to an “all-weather strategic cooperation”. In the conversation between Ahmed and Chinese Prime Minister Li Qiang, the discussion focused on ways to strengthen economic cooperation between Ethiopia and China. On the sidelines of the Forum, the Prime Minister also held a series of bilateral talks with Chinese President Xi Jinping, Prime Minister li qiang, the president of the New Development Bank, Dilma Rousseff, and other Beijing officials.

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