The US imposed sanctions on Ethiopia, and China is not happy about it

By Cobus van Staden
Posted on Friday, 24 September 2021 17:47, updated on Monday, 27 September 2021 12:33

U.S. President Joe Biden speaks in the State Dining Room of the White House on Friday, September 24, 2021 in Washington, DC. Photo by Al Drago/UPI Photo via Newscom/

The US has announced new sanctions against Ethiopia, and China has called out against it, in line with its general non-interference policy.

Ethiopia is giving us a glimpse of a set of dynamics that could come to shape African life in complicated ways. Last week, the Biden administration announced new sanctions aimed at reducing violence in the Tigray region, where conflict between the forces of President Abiy Ahmed and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) has caused massive human rights abuses affecting millions. The sanctions will target all sides of the conflict, including Ethiopia’s neighbour, Eritrea.

China, in the form of Spokesperson Zhao Lijian, decried what he called “the wanton exertion of pressure through sanctions or the threat of imposing sanctions to interfere in other countries’ internal affairs.”

This was hardly a surprise, falling in line with China’s general non-interference policy. However, it’s important to point out that this hands-off approach doesn’t reflect a lack of influence in the region, far from it.

China is a major investor in Ethiopia and has been instrumental in the low-wage manufacturing boom that has provided the country with a glimpse of possible prosperity. This development is now in the balance due to the Tigray crisis. China is also a major lender to Ethiopia and the co-chair (with France) of a committee of creditors looking to restructure its debt under the G20’s Common Framework. So China is hardly lacking in leverage in Ethiopia.

This tendency to play dead in the face of a well-documented humanitarian crisis is echoed by the AU. In theory, the AU is the direct opposite of China, in that it has a “duty to non-indifference” which gives it the option to overrule the sovereignty of member states in the case of genocide, ethnic cleansing, and war crimes.

In reality, the body has proven largely toothless, which ends up reinforcing China’s decision to step back, even as Dai Bing, China’s charge d’affaires at the UN called on everyone to “resolve African issues in an African way.”

China and the AU’s unwillingness to take on Abiy leaves places additional burdens on the United States. Zhao, literally in the next sentence following his denunciation of Biden’s sanctions, called on the US to “prudently handle relevant issues and play a constructive role in restoring peace and stability in the country.”

It’s difficult to say what that even means in this context. Samantha Power, Biden’s head of USAID found herself snubbed by Abiy on a recent visit to Addis Ababa, which must have contributed to the sanctions decision.

The sanctions are arguably both a sign of US power and of its decline. The US president still has the power to target foreign actors via sanctions. However, Abiy is sufficiently shielded by the AU and China that he can afford to respond to the sanctions via a theatrical open letter on Twitter accusing Biden of abetting, rather than opposing human rights abuses. The sanctions could make his life harder, but nobody should expect them to take him down.

And this is the larger lesson from this crisis. It’s not only that China tends to evoke non-interference only when it suits its interests, or that a picture of the AU should appear under “repeated disappointment” in the dictionary.

It’s that everyone knows that sanctions are the only weapon left in the US arsenal. It’s a satisfyingly symbolic card to play, but sanctions tend to wreck the fragile economies at which they’re aimed. They actually make it easier for bad leaders to entrench their power by imposing an endlessly exploitable external crisis, and China is only too happy to play into this dynamic. Remember Zimbabwe?

This article was first published in The China Africa Project. 

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