China Steers Conflict Mediation Efforts in East Africa

Africa

2022-06-29 / www.foreignpolicy.com




As the United States and European countries turn their attention to Russia and Ukraine, China has stepped up its conflict mediation efforts in East Africa.
The China-Horn of Africa Peace, Good Governance, and Development Conference—held in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, last week—indicates a slow but significant shift away from Beijing’s historic stated policy of noninterference in other countries’ internal affairs. As the United States vacates or loses influence in certain regions, China appears to be assuming a role it would otherwise have avoided to protect its economic ventures.

Protecting Beijing’s investments. Ethiopia could be considered a flagship for China’s Belt and Road Initiative, with around $16 billion in investments between 2000 and 2020 and currently around 400 Chinese construction and manufacturing projects. China also has an oil monopoly in Sudan and South Sudan. China’s only military base on the continent is in Djibouti, which it has operated since 2017.
The region is facing not only a security crisis but food shortages caused by one of the worst droughts in four decades. A record 15 million Sudanese—one-third of the population—are currently facing acute food insecurity, the United Nations World Food Program (WFP) recently warned. In South Sudan, around 2 million people are internally displaced, and 2.3 million people are living as refugees. But as countries divert budgets to aid Ukraine, the WFP said it was suspending assistance to some 1.7 million people in South Sudan due to drastic cuts to funding from global donors.

A long-running border dispute [between Ethiopia and Sudan] has resurfaced in the al-Fashqa triangle as well as tensions over Ethiopia’s construction of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) on the Nile river.

Washington’s fading influence. U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration has seen two Horn of Africa envoys leave after very short tenures. David Satterfield left his position in April after only three months on the job. And the administration’s first Horn envoy, Jeffrey Feltman, left in January after less than a year. In turn, Ethiopia—which has faced harsh sanctions from the United States over the conflict in Tigray—no longer sees Washington as a neutral mediator.

The Chinese envoy [ Xue Bing ]in his speech referenced “complicated and intertwined ethnicity, religion and boundary issues” in the region and noted they can be “difficult to handle, as many of them date back to colonial times.” It is of mutual interest to Beijing and Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed to put the country on a path toward peace without Washington’s involvement.
China provided $1.2 billion in funding toward the construction of the GERD. Moreover, China tends to support political dialogue without imposing outcomes and prefers soft diplomacy to sanctions, which plays to Ethiopia’s interests.
China’s ambitions to be friends with all parties could ultimately be its downfall. Despite promises made to back talks that would reach a mutually beneficial outcome for Egypt, Ethiopia, and Sudan over the GERD, there has been no resolution. It is not clear that Beijing will have greater success when it comes to Ethiopia’s internal conflicts.

 

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