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Ethiopia: Chinese foreign minister’s visit shows Beijing’s support for Abiy

By Eric Olander
Posted on Monday, 13 December 2021 08:20

Chinese State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi (L) meets with Ethiopian Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Demeke Mekonnen in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, Dec. 1, 2021. (Xinhua)

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi made a bold diplomatic statement with a previously unannounced visit to Ethiopia. The trip was seemingly intended to send a strong message of support to Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and, at the same time, rebuke mounting Western pressure against Addis Ababa.

Wang arrived in the Ethiopian capital on 1 December after departing Senegal where he co-hosted the three-day Forum on China-Africa Cooperation conference. He was met at the airport by Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Demeke Mekonnen who accompanied Wang to the Foreign Ministry, where the two held closed-door talks followed by a joint press conference.

The optics of Wang actually going into downtown Addis was itself widely seen as a significant gesture. Supporters of Prime Minister Abiy noted that while the US and European countries are pulling their personnel out of the capital, China’s top diplomat is heading the other way.

During their talks, according to a statement posted on the Foreign Ministry’s Facebook page, Demeke briefed Wang on the war with the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) and said “the enemy is on its backfoot.”

Later at the press conference, Wang reaffirmed Beijing’s longstanding opposition to what it characterises as “interference in Ethiopia’s domestic affairs” by the US and European powers who have become increasingly alarmed about the humanitarian crisis brought on by the escalating conflict.

For months, China has been Ethiopia’s most outspoken supporter at the UN and pushed back against efforts to either censure or sanction Addis Ababa for the war in Tigray.

Demeke also broached the issue of Ethiopia’s sizable debt to Chinese creditors, which totals an estimated $13.7bn. Ethiopia is the second-largest Chinese borrower in Africa behind Angola. There was no indication of how Wang replied to Demeke’s request for debt relief.

Why China and Ethiopia are so aligned during the ongoing conflict

Opposition to ethno-nationalism

China likely views the Ethiopian government’s determination to suppress the TPLF in much the same way as separatist movements in Xinjiang and elsewhere within its borders. This is precisely why China frames the current Ethiopian war as a purely domestic issue and not subject to international intervention.

Great power politics

The dynamics of the ongoing conflict in Ethiopia and the West’s reaction align neatly with China’s alternative worldview that vehemently opposes the use of unilateral sanctions and what it describes as “hegemonic bullying” by the US.

Given the growing perception that the US is actively supporting the TPLF in this conflict, it’s not surprising that China and Ethiopia’s positions are aligning.

Loyalty

This is the underappreciated X factor in this whole dynamic. One cannot overstate how much it meant to Chinese officials that Ethiopia resisted global pressure to halt flights to China during the height of the Covid-19 crisis. China was isolated then and Ethiopia was among the few countries that didn’t back away. Now, that loyalty is being repaid as Ethiopia finds itself increasingly alienated from the traditional powers. Wang didn’t have to visit Ethiopia on his way home but he did, and it highlights just how personal this geopolitical relationship is for both countries.

This article was published in partnership with The China Africa Project

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