The unfolding humanitarian and political crisis in Ethiopia has left many observers pessimistic about the likelihood of an inclusive and peaceful solution to the protracted conflict. After months of fighting between Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s central government and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), the Ethiopian state is at real risk of collapse. As international observers call upon the US to prevent state failure, and diaspora groups unite in solidarity for Ethiopian unity, we should not disregard another player that has a strong interest in a stable and peaceful Ethiopia: China.
China’s (rhetorical) pragmatism
China usually adopts a pragmatic approach to insecurity abroad, centred on preserving Chinese interests which include the safety of Chinese citizens and investments on the ground. In accordance with the often proclaimed principle of non-interference in other countries’ internal affairs, a corner stone of China’s diplomatic rhetoric in the Global South that aims to frame China as a different external actor in comparison to interventionist Western counterparts, Beijing remained relatively quiet when fighting first started in Tigray in November 2020. Yet, though unsurprisingly, Chinese workers were evacuated from Tigray with the help of the central government in Addis Ababa.
Since then, China has attempted to balance protecting its interests with preserving its close bilateral relationship with the Ethiopian government. China has publicly opposed potential US sanctions against Ethiopia and Chinese foreign policy officials have reassured Ethiopian counterparts that China will oppose interference in Ethiopia’s domestic affairs. In February at a regular press conference, Ministry of Foreign Affairs Spokesperson Wang Webin expressed China’s willingness to “offer emergency food assistance” and called upon the international community to support efforts to bring about stability in Tigray. In August, Dai Bing, chargé d'affaires of China's permanent mission to the United Nations, told a Security Council briefing that China wants the African Union (AU) and regional countries to find a solution to the conflict, reflecting how Chinese diplomats generally emphasise the finding of “African solutions to Africa’s problems.”
Earlier this month, China further supported a UN Security Council Statement which called on the warring parties to halt fighting and begin ceasefire talks. While China and Russia reportedly watered down the final wording, affirming the Security Council’s “strong commitment to the sovereignty, political independence, territorial integrity and unity of Ethiopia”, Beijing’s support nonetheless signalled China’s interest in finding a diplomatic solution to the conflict in a multilateral setting.
Meanwhile, the Chinese embassy has tried to signal business as usual on their Twitter account, showing Ambassador Zhao Zhiyuan during a visit of Chinese companies in Ethiopian industrial parks earlier this month. While the US has ordered all non-essential personnel and their families to leave the country, China seems likely to stay put, just as they did in Afghanistan during the Taliban take-over earlier this year.
Why there is much at stake for China
Despite China’s reservations and the efforts to emphasise business as usual, Beijing is certainly watching the situation in Ethiopia very closely. As one of China’s strongest African partners, Ethiopia has a special place in China’s Africa policy. Ethiopia is widely regarded as the most successful example of implementing lessons learned from China’s developmental state in the African context. Ethiopia’s real GDP per person rose by an average annual rate of 9.3% from 1999 to 2019, making it one of Africa’s fastest growing economies.
As a major investor and lender, China has been instrumental in the low-wage manufacturing boom that has driven Ethiopia’s economic growth over the last decade. According to data from the China-Africa Research Initiative, Chinese loans to Ethiopia amounted to a total of 13.729 billion USD from 2000-2019. Projects such as the China-built industrial park in Hawassa, a city south of Addis Ababa, are often portrayed by China’s state media as examples of China’s successful economic engagement in Africa.
Addis Ababa is further home to the AU headquarters, financed and built by China, as well as the China-financed Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, which has contributed to Africa’s fight against COVID-19. The Addis Ababa – Djibouti railway, which was built and part-financed by China and opened in 2018, and its connection to the Djibouti International Free Trade Zone (DIFTZ), which has been integrated into China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), as well as China’s first overseas military base which was inaugurated in Djibouti in 2017, reflect how China’s extensive regional economic interests extend beyond Ethiopia and are part of a larger strategic presence in the wider Horn of Africa.
Such economic interests certainly shape China’s approach and concerns vis-à-vis the situation in Ethiopia. With the recent coup and ongoing instability in Sudan, state collapse in Ethiopia could further destabilise the security situation in the region, endangering Chinese personnel and entities.
But economics are only one part of the picture as China also faces an image problem. Both Ethiopia and Sudan are quickly becoming a litmus test for China’s approach to overseas insecurity. China understands development to require security and vice-versa, a view that is often dubbed the development-security nexus. Sudan and Ethiopia are both major recipients of Chinese investment as well as part of China’s BRI and China has engaged diplomatically in Sudanese and South Sudanese intrastate conflicts. This makes much of what happens in the Horn at the moment a case study to observe the success of China’s developmental peace – the idea that peace requires development coordinated by a strong central government. Failure to secure stability in Ethiopia and the wider region will thus hardly leave China’s image in Africa and across the Global South untarnished.
What China can do about it
China therefore has plenty of impetus to act constructively to help bring about a peaceful solution to Ethiopia’s protracted conflict. With the 8th iteration of the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) held in Dakar around the corner (29-30 November), Beijing has an opportunity to leverage economic influence and diplomatic clout to contribute to breaking the stalemate between the TPLF and Abiy Ahmed’s government, both through multilateral channels and bilateral ones.
Actions mediated through FOCAC should factor into and support existing attempts to broker a ceasefire by the AU and Kenya, whose delegations will also be present at FOCAC. They should especially back former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo, now AU envoy to the Horn, in coordinating a process of de-escalation and demilitarisation, premised on the TPLF halting their insurgency while Addis Ababa releases services and aid to the Tigray region. Empowering a regional actor with credibility to head mediation efforts will contribute to success when the time for negotiation comes.
If the TPLF and the central government are unwilling to agree on such a diplomatic solution, China could offer to deploy Xu Jinghu, the Special Representative of the Chinese Government on African Affairs, or Wang Yi, China’s Foreign Minister, to engage in shuttle diplomacy between the conflicting parties. China worked pragmatically with the repressive and TPLF-dominated ERDF. Beijing is thus known to the major parties in the conflict and while observers note that it is unclear what exactly the TPLF would agree to in a political settlement with the central government, especially now that the TPLF is in a position of strength, China could nonetheless help set the table for such negotiations.
While it seems unlikely at first sight, especially in the aforementioned context of rhetorical non-interference, there is precedence for such a diplomatic manoeuvre. In Sudan, Beijing supported negotiations over the division of oil revenues between Khartoum and the then Southern Sudan regional government. When South Sudan partitioned from Sudan in 2011 and descended into armed conflict two years later, China stepped up its crisis diplomacy. While cautious in essence, Beijing was able to leverage its economic influence to bring warring parties to the negotiation table.
In January 2015, for instance, Beijing sent Foreign Minister Wang Yi to convene a “special consultation meeting” in Khartoum that included South Sudan’s warring parties, Ethiopia, Sudan and the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), a regional organisation which includes Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan and Uganda.
Willingness to engage does of course not guarantee success. Given China’s strong conviction to state sovereignty and fervent support of Abiy Ahmed’s government, any diplomatic engagement will have to start with the central government, rendering Beijing vulnerable to criticism from the TPLF and the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA), an armed group operating south-west of Addis that has begun to cooperate with the TPLF. China would further be confronted with a polarised political environment in which any party working with external support may be accused of selling out Ethiopia’s sovereignty. This is complicated by accusations that missiles procured from China were variously deployed against, and captured by, Tigrayan rebels throughout the conflict, making it more difficult for China to appear as a neutral arbiter or table setter in the conflict.
Given Addis Ababa’s strong commitment to framing the Ethiopian crisis as an issue of internal affairs and resulting scepticism of external involvement, China would have an even harder time in selling a diplomatic solution to an Ethiopian delegation at FOCAC, especially given Abiy Ahmed’s conviction to achieve a military solution over a diplomatic one. Proposals to mediate from the now reinstated Sudanese Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok, who is also the chair of IGAD, and from South Sudan’s President Salva Kiir have been made to no avail.
Despite all this, the carrot that China can offer is financial incentive. As a major economic player in the region with a reputation for working in risky environments, China is uniquely positioned to help in rebuilding Tigray and other regions affected by the war while also providing immediate disaster relief in line with efforts from the international community. In the context of the Biden administration’s decision to suspend Ethiopia from the US African Growth and Opportunity Act, which has meant to lower trade barriers between African countries and the US since 2000, China may emerge as an even more important destination for Ethiopian exports.
It is certainly true that an overseas spending spree is now a harder sell for Beijing domestically compared to a decade ago, owing to China’s slowing economic growth. But China has usually showed up to FOCAC with a bag of cash and FOCAC already has several existing funding vehicles that could contribute to supporting Ethiopia’s reconstruction. China may not be able to help in creating a shared vision for the Ethiopian state – an endeavour ultimately necessary to bring lasting stability to the country – but Beijing can help in pointing ways towards a brighter economic future for an Ethiopian economy that has been ravaged by the war.
Avoiding the worst
It is unclear what will happen if Addis Ababa falls to the rebel insurgency. China would likely be poised to evacuate remaining citizens from Ethiopia, a complex operation that could involve People’s Liberation Army (PLA) troops stationed in neighbouring Djibouti, echoing evacuations from Libya in 2011 and Yemen in 2015. While China is certainly better prepared now than it was then to respond to any such contingency and has a history of pragmatically shifting allegiances based on political realities on the ground, it is in Beijing’s strong interest to avoid such a situation and help bring about stability in Africa’s second most populous country. Chinese officials have long sought to present China as a responsible great power that is capable of shouldering international responsibility. The situation in Ethiopia presents an opportunity for Beijing to step up to the plate.