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In DepthChanging winds A new era beacons for Ethio-China relations

Changing winds A new era beacons for Ethio-China relations

Ethiopia has taken its relationship with China to new heights, announcing an upgrade to an “All-Weather Strategic Cooperation Partnership” during Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s (PhD) recent visit to Beijing, China. This designation, historically reserved for China’s closest allies, indicates both countries’ commitment to closer political and economic ties going forward.

The move signals Ethiopia’s commitment to strengthening political and economic ties with China at an important juncture. As tensions rise between Western powers and China over issues like Taiwan, Ethiopia’s reaffirmed support for Beijing’s “One China” policy demonstrates a deepening strategic alignment. The full implications of this enhanced alliance remain to be seen, but Ethiopia clearly hopes to tap further opportunities through tighter cooperation with its new ‘all-weather’ partner – China.

In a remarkable stride, Ethiopia, mere weeks after joining BRICS, embarked on the next chapter of its alliance with China. The momentous occasion unfolded in Beijing on October 17, 2023, as China proudly announced the elevation of its relationship with Ethiopia.

The term ‘All-Weather Strategic Partnership’ carries two significant implications within China’s foreign policy framework. It signifies an extraordinary bond that knows no bounds, free from any constraints or conditions.

This elevated status endows Ethiopia with a plethora of privileges, including a gracious and warm reception whenever Ethiopian officials tread upon Chinese soil, an unwavering foundation of political trust, a strategic alliance built upon shared national interests, and steadfast economic support from China.

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“China’s government has stringent requirements for establishing an ‘all-weather’ relationship with countries. There are various layers and grades, with ‘all-weather’ being the second highly esteemed status,” Tefera Deribew, Ethiopian Ambassador to China, said in an interview with state media.

Tefera says this remarkable association presents Ethiopia with vast opportunities for economic, military, security, and political cooperation with China. He emphasized that only four countries currently hold this ‘all-weather’ relationship with China, and “Ethiopia stands as the sole African nation among them.”

“It bolsters social, institutional, and public-level relations between the two nations. Ideologically aligned and in consensus, Ethiopia and China will draw closer on regional and international platforms. Politically, there will be a strong party-to-party relationship,” Tefera explained.

Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (PhD), in a historic encounter, recently met with President Xi Jinping, for the first time since Ethiopia’s anticipated induction into BRICS, set to materialize in 2024.

Billene Seyoum, the press secretary at the Office of the Prime Minister, who accompanied Abiy on his visit to China, emphasized that this was no ordinary trip to Beijing.

“Jinping announced the elevation of the Ethio-China relationship from comprehensive to an ‘all-weather strategic cooperation partnership.’ This partnership ensures that Ethiopia and China will maintain an unwavering bond that remains unaffected by any circumstances in the future, she stated.

The term ‘all-weather friends’ means that both nations will guarantee each other’s safety at all times, according to Billene.

During the high-level deliberations, China extended a generous offer to support Ethiopia in rebuilding its economy from the ruins of war.

“Given Ethiopia’s post-war status, China has committed to providing comprehensive support for reconstruction. Furthermore, China has agreed to assist Ethiopia in alleviating its external debt burden. The two leaders have also pledged to collaborate on enhancing the future of their party relationships,” Billene elaborated.

In return, Abiy, who was in Beijing to commemorate the tenth anniversary of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), reciprocated China’s generosity with promises of his own.

In conjunction with the anniversary, Beijing and Shanghai hosted several Ethio-China investment forums.

Five Chinese companies signed Memorandums of Understanding (MoUs) with the Ethiopian Investment Commission, primarily in the pharmaceutical and agro-processing sectors. Additionally, nine Chinese companies engaged in one-to-one discussions with Engineer Habtamu Tegegn (Eng.), Minister of Mining, and expressed their intent to invest in Ethiopia.

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During this significant state visit, Chinese and Ethiopian officials solidified their commitment through the signing of 12 MoUs and two letters of intent. These agreements encompass a wide array of benefits for Ethiopia, ranging from debt cancellations to strengthened geopolitical alliances.

Ethiopian officials also had a meeting with Dilma Roussef, the president of the New Development Bank established by BRICS. This particular discussion holds the potential to provide much-needed financial support to Ethiopia.

PM Abiy expressed his willingness to align Ethiopia’s Ten-Year Development Plan and Endogenous Economic Reform Plan with China’s Belt and Road Initiative, as stated in a press release issued by the Chinese embassy in Addis Ababa.

This alignment signifies Ethiopia’s active participation in co-developing various projects, including the construction of industrial parks, special economic zones, railways, and more. The Belt and Road Initiative, with its focus on the Horn of Africa as a gateway to the continent, aligns harmoniously with Ethiopia’s aspirations.

According to Costantinos Berhutesfa (PhD), a policy analyst and former Ethiopian official who has served at the AU and UN, the alliance with BRICS holds great promise for Ethiopia.

“BRICS countries have commendable expertise in agricultural surplus production and structural transformation to manufacturing. Ethiopia stands to gain immensely from this alliance,” emphasized Costantinos.

While the economic front is expected to witness significant growth and opportunities, scholars caution that the political realm may experience more modest advancements. However, one of the Prime Minister’s commitments during his visit to China this week holds significant political implications and sheds light on the potential political ramifications of Addis Ababa’s burgeoning ties with Beijing.

As stated in the press release by the Chinese embassy: “The Ethiopian Government reaffirms its adherence to the one-China principle, recognizes the Government of the People’s Republic of China as the only legitimate government representing the whole of the nation, and supports all efforts made by China to achieve national reunification.”

The one-China principle grants China the authority to take necessary measures to maintain Taiwan as an integral part of its territory.

Interestingly, this issue has arisen at a time when rumors circulate in Addis Ababa about a potential confederation reunion between Ethiopia and Eritrea. Speculation has surged following the Prime Minister’s speech emphasizing Ethiopia’s imperative to secure access to the Red Sea.

The statement from the Chinese embassy further underlines that both sides reaffirm their steadfast support for core interests, including the preservation of national sovereignty and territorial integrity.

In the realm of international diplomacy, China and Russia have emerged as staunch supporters of Ethiopia within the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), coming to Ethiopia’s aid on multiple occasions. This trend of reciprocal voting, aimed at countering the West’s influence in leveraging the Council as a tool, is expected to persist.

Such solidarity is particularly crucial as Egypt once again brings the issue of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) before the UNSC.

Observers note that the mutual interdependence and transactional diplomacy between Ethiopia and China are experiencing a renaissance after a tumultuous period following the downfall of the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) regime.

“China seeks a stable nation to foster business partnerships with, especially considering the prevalence of conflicts and coups in the Horn region and Africa at large. China aims to find a reliable ally in the Horn region, and the Pretoria agreement notably marked a significant turning point for Ethiopia,” expressed an International Relations lecturer at Addis Ababa University, who wanted to remain anonymous.

“The current Ethiopian regime essentially operates as a developmental state, although they refrain from officially declaring so to distance themselves from being aligned with the ideological categorization of the EPRDF,” the Lecturer says.

Leaders from both countries emphasize their ties as “pragmatic” rather than rooted in ideological allegiance. A joint statement released after the meeting between Prime Minister Abiy and Jinping on Tuesday expressed satisfaction with the fruitful results of their pragmatic and friendly cooperation.

Both sides, according to the statement, pledged to maintain high-level exchanges, foster political mutual trust, deepen mutually beneficial cooperation, and better benefit their respective peoples.

The statement further announced the elevation of their existing partnership to an all-weather strategic partnership, solidifying the strength and durability of their bond.

In a resolute display of its commitment to the One-China policy, Ethiopia is solidifying its political alliance within the eastern sphere. Against the backdrop of escalating tensions, the Ethiopian government has accused the US and Europe of encroaching upon its sovereignty and national integrity since the deadly conflict in northern Ethiopia in November 2020 took place.

In a similar vein, China has been reproaching the West for its inclinations towards recognizing Taiwan’s independence.

Heightened apprehensions loom as the West speculates over the possibility of China’s annexation of Taiwan, with scholars warning of the catastrophic consequences that could ensue, potentially leading to a third world war.

The US and its partners have unveiled a regional bloc designed to counter the Belt and Road Initiative. The India-Middle East-Europe Economic Corridor (IMEC) seeks to establish robust railway and shipping connections, forging links between India, the Arabian Gulf, and Europe.

The ambitious vision extends beyond trade, encompassing electricity and digital infrastructure, as well as pipelines for the export of clean hydrogen.

Within the African continent, the Trans-African Corridor, namely the Lobito Corridor, will connect Angola to the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and Zambia, culminating in the Indian Ocean.

However, specific details regarding financing and timeline are yet to be disclosed. On the other hand, the BRI aims to link Africa, the Middle East, Europe, and Asia.

According to an official document, China is poised to significantly bolster its investment, trade, and co-development initiatives in Ethiopia, among other areas.

“China is willing to continue encouraging and supporting the export of Ethiopian products, including agricultural and food products, to China, and welcomes Ethiopia to make good use of the ‘green channel’ for African agricultural products to be exported to China,” reads the document.

While the specifics of the recently signed MoUs remain undisclosed, expectations run high that China will take substantial steps to restructure Ethiopia’s debt. A staggering portion of Ethiopia’s external debt, totaling USD 28 billion, is owed to China.

Unfortunately, Ethiopia’s request for debt restructuring under the G20 framework in 2021 has made no headway, as the International Monetary Fund (IMF) has imposed certain preconditions.

Despite co-chairing the Creditors’ Committee, China has chosen to address Ethiopia’s debt restructuring request on an individual basis.

Optimists envision that the enhanced diplomatic ties between China and Ethiopia will serve as an economic lifeline for Ethiopia, which has been grappling to recover from two years of devastating conflict.

However, the road ahead appears uncertain as Ethiopia navigates the delicate equilibrium between the West and the East.

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