With the US and Europe preoccupied by the war in Ukraine, China is testing the waters in politics with Africa, a rare language for African leaders who see China as the purse-string to development and outright business. Going from an all-business and development approach and into newer pastures of mediating, China seems to hold a different card compared to the wests choice of measures and apparent solutions.
Africa has everything but peace, often busy with military coup, rival factions power struggle or undemocratic governments. And lately, China has gone out of its way to restore peace and security in the Horn of Africa.
China’s neutrality seems to have it in good stead and its ‘just business approach’ is shifting into reshaping Africa’s politics. But compared to the US and Europe, China is a latecomer in trying to mend the minefield of politicking in the horn.
In a first of its kind China initiated peace conference in the Horn, also exposed on which global powers; African leaders want to rely on. Xue Bing, China’s special envoy to the Horn of Africa, convened with higher officials from Sudan, Somalia, South Sudan, Kenya, Uganda and Djibouti for two days in Addis Ababa, on June 20 and 21, 2022.
Bing offered to mediate the apparent crisis in the region, including the stalemate between the federal government of Ethiopia and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front.
However, Eritrea’s absence, which is the status quo most of the times, is one obstacle to Bing’s mission to restore peace in the horn. When he visited the countries last March, he underscored that China wants to support countries in the Horn of Africa to address the challenges of security, development, governance; and pursue a path of unity and self-improvement.
Bing says most of the Horn of Africa’s current problems are due to external interference, and has the capacity to “resolve its differences through dialogue and consultation.”
Perhaps Bing has better knowledge of the politics in the Horn than any of his western counterparts. “Complicated and intertwined ethnicity, religion and boundary issues in the region can be difficult to handle, as many of them date back to colonial times,” he said.
Higher officials of the horn countries, attending the peace conference, echoed the same sentiments.
“To say that our region is facing an existential issue of various nature and scale, is not an exaggeration, it is rather stating the obvious,” said Redwan Hussein (Amb.), national security advisor to Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (PhD). This in light of Ethiopia, a former peace keeping machine and regional stabilizer, becoming a hotbed of conflicts, not only internally but also border clashes with neighboring Sudan and a steep hydro-politics case with riparian countries mainly Egypt.
The officials also told delegates that ‘business as usual’ won’t work anymore.
“Unless and until we achieve peace and stability in the region, we will not be able to develop. China has always been a friend and a cooperating country. This partnership stands as a successful model for cooperation and collaboration,” said Dafalla Elhaji, undersecretary of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Sudan. All the officials present at the conference seemed to have accepted China as a peace broker, enamored by their neutrality.
These testimonies are on par with Europe’s recent stance that China is the only state capable of mediating Russia and Ukraine.
“China maintains a political neutrality and integrity because it has never supported or denounced any governments. China has been engaging everybody, cautiously. It talks to minorities and the ruling class, and opposition groups equally. China’s engagement in Africa is not just to amass Africa’s resources, as the west claims. Of course, there focus before has only been in economy. But now, it is shifting to security and political stability,” said Constentinos Bruhtesfa, a former higher official at the UN and AU, with a longstanding expertise on China.
“For instance, Al-shabab controls significant parts of Somalia and runs over hundreds of millions of dollars in informal economy with the Kenyan military. Unlike the West, China did not join forces to eradicate Al-shabab. There are 31 Islamic states. China understands everything and can talk and work with anybody. China worked with the TPLF in the past decades so they can find ways to create peace in Ethiopia too. Regimes change. But China’s relationship is with the people, not regimes. That is why they build generational projects,” added Constentinos.
He underlined that China’s relationship is consistent, unlike the west’s, where their relationships and policies change as administrations change.
Others have it that the goal of China’s change in policy in the horn, is not only to safeguard its investment portfolios but also to secure its growing interest in the horns geopolitics.
“China believes Africa should not end as a toy for the US. The west always tends to exploit Africa. In fact, Africa cannot stand on equal footing with the west. But Africa can grow together with China,” said an official working in IGAD, who wanted to remain anonymous.
“The US changed its special envoy to the Horn of Africa three times in six months. They tried transactional diplomacy and it failed. China’s first envoy managed to galvanize the region at once. This is because they are always reserved from meddling in the internal politics of African countries. This is a big political capital, which China can use to mediate equally at such times of turmoil,” added the official.
Manufacturing investments in Ethiopia, oil plants in south Sudan, military base in Djibouti, and other investments in Uganda, Tanzania and other countries, are not only what China seeks to safeguard, but also its future in Africa.
China’s engagement with Africa has significantly changed and it is undeniable it has more pull in Africa, considering the investment poured into countries. The growing instability, often escorted with waves of unlawful change of governments in Africa, also poses a unique opportunity to transition from an only business model, and into a global mainstay in diplomacy. Experts stress China is not only trying to safeguard its investments in Ethiopia, but also its gateway to Africa.
The Belt and Road Initiative, which encompasses Africa, is parts and parcel of China’s global peace and security package and future foreign relations footprint. The senior official at IGAD also depicts China’s policy shift towards politics and security, will not end at restoring peace in Africa.
“China is looking to build more military bases in a number of African states, besides Djibouti. The US and European countries have been doing everything to stop this. But the Ukraine war has brought a critical moment for African states to take a side,” he added.
However, Constentinos says China can avert a further crisis in the Horn, only if it can manage tow tasks; restructuring debt and providing humanitarian access.
“African economies are under strain of external debt distress. The G20 are not willing to profile Africa’s debt, until China makes the move first. Every African country hopes China will save them before the west enslaves Africa through soft loans. The other critical issue especially for the horn is the humanitarian crisis, where over 40 million people need emergency assistance. Failing to contain this crisis, will fuel the political instability in the horn. Therefore, if China is into restoring peace and stability, it should start by providing humanitarian assistance,” concluded Constentinos.