China Steps Up Diplomacy in Horn of Africa

As the United States and European countries turn their attention to Russia and Ukraine, China has stepped up its conflict mediation efforts in East Africa.

The China-Horn of Africa Peace, Good Governance, and Development Conference—held in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, last week—indicates a slow but significant shift away from Beijing’s historic stated policy of noninterference in other countries’ internal affairs. As the United States vacates or loses influence in certain regions, China appears to be assuming a role it would otherwise have avoided to protect its economic ventures.

Protecting Beijing’s investments. Ethiopia could be considered a flagship for China’s Belt and Road Initiative, with around $16 billion in investments between 2000 and 2020 and currently around 400 Chinese construction and manufacturing projects. China also has an oil monopoly in Sudan and South Sudan. China’s only military base on the continent is in Djibouti, which it has operated since 2017.

“I myself am ready to provide mediation efforts for the peaceful settlement of disputes based on the will of countries in this region,” Xue Bing, China’s first special envoy to the Horn of Africa, told an audience of the region’s foreign ministers and deputies at the conference. Although the prospect of Chinese military deployment is unlikely in the Horn of Africa, China will attempt to bring leaders to the negotiating table.

The region is facing not only a security crisis but food shortages caused by one of the worst droughts in four decades. A record 15 million Sudanese—one-third of the population—are currently facing acute food insecurity, the United Nations World Food Program (WFP) recently warned. In South Sudan, around 2 million people are internally displaced and 2.3 million people are living as refugees. But as countries divert budgets to aid Ukraine, the WFP said it was suspending assistance to some 1.7 million people in South Sudan due to drastic cuts to funding from global donors.

Compounding the situation are internal rifts. On Tuesday, Sudan’s military recalled its ambassador to Ethiopia, a day after accusing the Ethiopian army of executing and putting on display the bodies of seven Sudanese soldiers and a civilian held as captives. A long-running border dispute has resurfaced in the al-Fashqa triangle as well as tensions over Ethiopia’s construction of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) on the Nile river.

Washington’s fading influence. U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration has seen two Horn of Africa envoys leave after very short tenures. David Satterfield left his position in April after only three months on the job. And the administration’s first Horn envoy, Jeffrey Feltman, left in January after less than a year. In turn, Ethiopia—which has faced harsh sanctions from the United States over the conflict in Tigray—no longer sees Washington as a neutral mediator.

The Chinese envoy in his speech referenced “complicated and intertwined ethnicity, religion and boundary issues” in the region and noted they can be “difficult to handle, as many of them date back to colonial times.” It is of mutual interest to Beijing and Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed to put the country on a path toward peace without Washington’s involvement.

China provided $1.2 billion in funding toward the construction of the GERD. Moreover, China tends to support political dialogue without imposing outcomes and prefers soft diplomacy to sanctions, which plays to Ethiopia’s interests.

A theme of the Abiy administration’s pushback against human rights criticism has been accusations of political manipulation by the U.S. government and the right of Ethiopia to resolve its dispute without interference. Redwan Hussein, Ethiopia’s national security advisor, told the conference that Addis Ababa was ready to play a part in peaceful negotiations.

“Let us take our own share of responsibility for the failure [of regional peace] and commit ourselves to take the destiny of our region into our hands,” he said, noting an interest in avoiding “external interference.”

Yet China’s ambitions to be friends with all parties could ultimately be its downfall. Despite promises made to back talks that would reach a mutually beneficial outcome for Egypt, Ethiopia, and Sudan over the GERD, there has been no resolution. It is not clear that Beijing will have greater success when it comes to Ethiopia’s internal conflicts.