Wednesday, February 21, 2024

Threading the needle carefully

The pillar of Ethiopia’s foreign policy has been anchored in four planks: the pursuit of mutual interest and recognition of equality of states; ensuring respect for national sovereignty and territorial integrity; non-alignment; and forging an environment fostering fraternal relations with other nations and their people. These principles are enshrined here and therein the present constitution of Ethiopia as well as the country’s foreign and national security policies and strategies. When it comes to practice, however, geo-political realities and the ideological camp to which it belonged have driven the nation’s foreign policy. Successive Ethiopian governments thus have not always acted in the letter or spirit of the tenets articulated in official foreign and national security policy documents.

Ethiopia’s foreign relations were relatively independent for decades after the emergence of a multi-polar, poly-centric global order in the wake of the end of the Cold War era. The new power configuration in world politics gave the country the freedom to adopt a neutral stance in its relations with competing powers. This approach helped it to strike friendly relations with former adversaries and enhanced its international stature. However, Ethiopia’s external relations, particularly with the West, have been blowing hot and cold due to largely domestic factors after Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (PhD) assumed office in April 2018. The raft of political and economic reforms the administration of the premier introduced soon into his tenure, including releasing political prisoners, allowing exiled opposition figures to return home, replacing draconian laws with enabling legislation, ending the twenty-year old state of no-peace no-war with neighboring Eritrea, and liberalizing the telecom sector, endeared Ethiopia to the West. The resulting improvement of the ties between the two sides helped Ethiopia reap not only political benefits, but also economic dividends in the form of billions of dollars of aid and loans from international financial institutions.

The warmth did not last long though. It began to wane as soon as the West chose to align with Sudan and Egypt over the filling and operation of the Great Ethiopian Resistance Dam (GERD). Ethiopia’s refusal to sign a binding agreement drafted by the U.S. on the dam’s filling period and the repeated convening of the Security Council, at the behest of Egypt and Sudan, to arm-twist Ethiopia into halting the filling of the GERD’s reservoir and acceding to a binding agreement between the three sides led to a friction among the west and Ethiopia. The relationship became even more strained during the two-year civil war that pitted the government and allied forces with combatants of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). Ethiopia was subjected to intense pressure at the hands of Western governments, the U.N., mainstream media, think-tanks and rights groups. The U.S. slapped various sanctions on Ethiopia, revoked the benefits it enjoyed under the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), and scaled back its economic assistance. These measures and other unwarranted diplomatic strong-arming brought the relationship between the two parties to one of its lowest point. Fortunately, the conclusion in November 2022 of a peace deal between the federal government and the TPLF brought Ethiopia back in the West’s graces, leading to a resumption of its assistance for humanitarian and reconstruction purposes as well as provisioning of loans and grants.

Even as Ethiopia mends its ties with the West, it has elevated its relationship with China. Aside from joining the BRICS bloc of countries, which is dominated by China, Ethiopia has managed to secure a debt repayment moratorium from its largest lender, signaling a re-orientation of sorts in its foreign policy priority. This state of affairs means it finds itself in a position where it has no choice but to walk a tightrope when interacting with the West and China. Although there are observers who are of the belief that the West may forsake Ethiopia owing to the marked deepening of the latter’s bond with its top geo-political rival, this is an unlikely scenario because doing so is bound to harm its strategic interest. It will continue to maintain its diplomatic, economic and humanitarian engagement with Ethiopia regardless of any misgiving that it the county has thrown its lot with China.

As a nation which must diversify its international partnerships to reduce dependency on a single country or region, Ethiopia needs to navigate a delicate balance between its two biggest partners. This allows it to safeguard its sovereignty and pursue its own national interests. By threading the needle carefully as it seeks to weave strong relationships with the West and China, Ethiopia can more effectively advocate for its priorities and negotiate optimal terms for cooperation. Ultimately, Ethiopia’s juggling act between the West and China ought to be a carefully calculated strategy to maximize economic opportunities, ensure regional stability, and promote its own national interests in a rapidly evolving global landscape. 

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