DON'T MISS : Talking Africa Podcast – Mozambique's insurgency: After Palma, what comes next?

Ethiopia’s security crisis is worsening, what are China’s options?

Eric Olander
By Eric Olander

Managing Editor, The China Africa Project

Posted on Thursday, 4 November 2021 17:51

A handover ceremony for Chinese-donated COVID-19 vaccines is held in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, on Oct. 24, 2021. (Xinhua/Michael Tewelde) - Michael Tewelde

The pressure on Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed intensified considerably over the past couple of days following reports that rebel forces from the northern Tigray region are gaining ground and even apparently considering marching towards the capital Addis Ababa.

In response, the Prime Minister declared a state of emergency and the government told residents to register their arms with local authorities in preparation to defend their neighbourhoods from the advancing Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF).

At the same time, the Prime Minister is facing growing international isolation following the US’ decision on 2 November to suspend duty-free access to the American market.

US Trade Representative Katherine Tai made the announcement on 2 November on behalf of President Joe Biden and said that unless “necessary actions” were taken, free-trade privileges as part of the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) would be revoked in 60 days.

But the Prime Minister can bet that Ethiopia will likely not face sanctions or even modest pressure from the UN, where both China and Russia are blocking motions, even a statement from the Security Council, on the grounds that they consider the Tigray crisis to be an internal Ethiopian problem and not subject to UN intervention.

Although China has yet to comment in response to the latest US measures, a denunciation of what it regards as “wanton pressure through sanctions” will likely come soon given that Beijing has come to Addis Ababa’s defence against Washington repeatedly over the past six months.

China largely regards unilateral sanctions like those by the US against Ethiopia, Zimbabwe, and Sudan, as unlawful interference in another country’s internal affairs.

But there’s a lot more at stake for China in Ethiopia than its simmering geopolitical rivalry with the US. Chinese companies are heavily invested in Ethiopia’s budding manufacturing sector, China’s major policy banks have more outstanding loans in Ethiopia than any other country in Africa except Angola, and Chinese bodies are deeply entwined with Ethiopia’s state-owned enterprises including Ethiopian Airlines and Ethio Telecom.

Then, of course, there’s the AU that’s headquartered in Addis. The city is also home to the new Chinese-financed Centers for Disease Control, which has emerged as a key pillar in the continent’s fight against Covid-19.

And all of this is unfolding just weeks ahead of the triennial Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) conference in Dakar that’s expected to take place on 28-29 November. Although China prefers to avoid last-minute changes to the agendas at these kinds of fora, the fast-moving events on the ground in Africa, including the recent coups in Guinea and Sudan, the seizure of power in Tunisia, and growing unrest in Ethiopia, may result in a more prominent focus on security issues than had been previously planned.

Two ways China might respond to the instability in Ethiopia

Trade

Ethiopia, more than any other African country, is well-positioned to ramp up trade with China due to Ethiopian Airlines’ world-class aviation and logistics capabilities.

Separately, the Chinese-built rail-to-port infrastructure connecting Ethiopia and Djibouti could also be leveraged to ramp up trade volumes in an effort to offset the reduced access to the US market. One option likely under consideration is a further reduction of tariffs to provide easier access to the Chinese market for Ethiopian products (see Uganda President Yoweri Museveni’s appeal on this issue).

Politics

Publicly, China will be among PM Abiy’s most vocal supporters, particularly against the US and at international fora like the UN. But based on what we know from previous transfers of power in African states, China will likely be quietly working behind the scenes with rival stakeholders in the event of a future power transition in Ethiopia.

This was the case in Zimbabwe ahead of the coup that toppled longstanding dictator Robert Mugabe, as well as recently with the new military government in Guinea. This is rooted in what Tsinghua University Africa scholar Tang Xiaoyang characterizes as Beijing’s commitment to pragmatism.

The one other factor to watch here is the security of Chinese personnel in Ethiopia. Most Chinese nationals have been evacuated from the northern Tigray region, but if the situation in Addis Ababa deteriorates, it may require a large-scale evacuation similar to what happened in Libya in 2011 and 2014. Now, seven years later, with a fully-operational PLA Navy base located nearby in Djibouti, Chinese authorities are much better positioned to handle that kind of operation, if necessary.

One would only assume, given the growing instability throughout North Africa and the Horn of Africa, that the PLA is deploying additional resources to the base in Djibouti should it be called on to evacuate personnel from the region.

This article was published in partnership with The China-Africa Project. 

Understand Africa's tomorrow... today

We believe that Africa is poorly represented, and badly under-estimated. Beyond the vast opportunity manifest in African markets, we highlight people who make a difference; leaders turning the tide, youth driving change, and an indefatigable business community. That is what we believe will change the continent, and that is what we report on. With hard-hitting investigations, innovative analysis and deep dives into countries and sectors, The Africa Report delivers the insight you need.

View subscription options