Since November of 2020, Ethiopia has been suffering from a deadly internal conflict that has claimed an estimated 50,000 lives and displaced over two million. The United States, the African Union and others in the region have attempted to secure a cease-fire between the federal government and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) but have made little headway. In contrast, China has remained mainly on the sidelines of peacebuilding efforts even though Ethiopia — the second most populous country in Africa — is a centerpiece of its Africa policy.
The scale and pace of the crisis now requires international cooperation, not competition. The political and financial burden of delivering a solution cannot be borne by any one country alone. Washington should, as a priority, explore how Beijing might join a coordinated international effort to back an African diplomatic push for a sustained settlement of the Ethiopian crisis before its humanitarian crisis worsens and further destabilizes the region. China may instead take satisfaction in the perceived failure of U.S. diplomatic efforts and the growing tension between Washington and Addis Ababa — but such a posture threatens China’s considerable investment in Ethiopia and risks alienating Africans who resent great power rivalries playing out in their countries.
Ethiopia’s Profound Crisis
Upon taking office in 2018, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed liberalized the authoritarian Ethiopian government that the TPLF had dominated since 1991. His actions included lifting a ban on political parties and freeing political prisoners. Abiy was also awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019 for his efforts to end the protracted conflict between Ethiopia and neighboring Eritrea. Despite these positive developments, the Abiy government was met with criticism for centralizing power at the expense of Tigray and other regions. Long-standing regional and ethnic divisions — that Abiy’s reforms allowed greater expression for — were intensified by a postponement of the 2020 national elections amid COVID-19.
Tensions had been building in recent years, with the Abiy government seeing the TPLF as pushing for greater regional autonomy — if not independence — and the Tigrayans charging the Abiy government with politically marginalizing the province, which no longer enjoyed the spoils of power. The Tigrayans defied Abiy’s election delay and held regional polls in September 2020. Two months later, large-scale fighting erupted between the Ethiopian federal military and the Tigray Defense Forces (TDF) when Tigrayan fighters struck a federal military base in an act they claimed was preemptive.
Today, the government and TPLF are dug in and shunning dialogue — with dire humanitarian consequences. The TPLF has allied with other anti-government groups, including the Oromo Liberation Army, though recent military setbacks have led it to call for a cease-fire. A federal government blockade has prevented food and medicine from reaching Tigray, jeopardizing lives. Horrific human rights abuses are commonplace, some of which “may amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity,” according to the United Nations. The U.N. Security Council has called for a cease-fire, while the African Union has enlisted former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo to broker talks. Yet so far, little diplomatic progress has been made.
China’s Deep Ties
Ethiopia is a central hub for China’s Belt and Road Initiative, an evolving program to expand Chinese influence by financing and building infrastructure throughout the developing world. Currently, there are about 400 Chinese construction and manufacturing projects in Ethiopia, valued at over $4 billion. Much of Ethiopia’s air, road and rail infrastructure is financed and built by the Chinese.
This strong Chinese economic engagement has resulted in Beijing becoming Ethiopia’s top trading partner. Before COVID-19, the Ethiopian economy had been impressively growing at 10 percent for over a decade, affirming China’s high standing as a development partner. However, concerns exist about the sustainability of Ethiopia’s estimated $13.7 billion of Chinese debt, second only to Angola’s in Africa. This debt liability further heightens China’s stake in Ethiopia.
Political ties between the two countries are strong as well. Ethiopia was the first African country to host a Forum on China-Africa Cooperation meeting, held in 2003. In 2012, China funded and built the $200 million African Union headquarters in Addis Ababa. Meanwhile, Chinese media have expanded their presence in Ethiopia.
China and Ethiopia have also built upon a 2005 defense agreement on joint training, technology exchange and peacekeeping operations. Ethiopian officers have trained in China. While most of its heavy weapons are Russian or Ukrainian made, the Ethiopian military has recently procured Chinese artillery and transport vehicles. Moreover, government forces are believed to be using Chinese-supplied drones. Chinese economic, political and security efforts appear to have paid off, with Abiy describing China as “the most reliable friend and the most cherished partner of Ethiopia.”
China’s Dilemma: Backing the Government, Calling for Non-Interference
In keeping with its long-standing claim of “non-interference,” Beijing has resisted aggressive international engagement in Ethiopia. Its ambassador to the United Nations said in November 2021 that “solutions can only be found from within,” reiterating “support for African solutions to solve African problems,” including by regional countries and organizations. Ambassador Zhang Jun cautioned the U.N. Security Council “to provide necessary time and space to the African Union to carry out such efforts,” while noting that humanitarian relief efforts must respect Ethiopia’s “sovereignty and leadership,” a position China has stressed since the conflict began. The Chinese emissary also spoke out against imposing economic sanctions against Ethiopia.
China undoubtedly is keeping close watch on the spreading insecurity, with an estimated 30,000 Chinese nationals in Ethiopia. With its major Ethiopian investment portfolio now on pause, partly because of the conflict, China’s belief that “without security and stability, there can be no development” is being validated. But how to contribute to security and stability without interference in a complex political and ethnic context is becoming a challenging dilemma for China.
Despite the escalating violence, the U.N. Security Council has been slow in addressing this crisis, largely because of China’s traditional sovereignty concerns. Ethiopia has welcomed Beijing’s position, with its foreign ministry recently commending China for recognizing that “external power involvement in the Ethiopian government operation in Tigray is unnecessary since Ethiopia is capable of solving its own problems.”
U.S. diplomatic efforts, however, have irritated Ethiopia. The U.S. special envoy for the Horn of Africa recently said the Biden administration is “work[ing] tirelessly to keep this crisis on the international agenda,” including at the United Nations. In response to the Abiy government’s “gross violations of internationally recognized human rights” in Tigray, the United States recently withdrew trade benefits that Ethiopia desired to maintain and U.S. sanctions targeting complicit Ethiopian government officials have been authorized. Abiy refused to meet with USAID Administrator Samantha Power during her recent visit to Ethiopia to address the humanitarian crisis in Tigray, a sign that strains in the U.S.- Ethiopia relationship are growing as this crisis intensifies.
Strategic Rivalry or Diplomacy?
There is the potential for the United States to strategically fail in Ethiopia. Until the recent strains, and despite China’s growing imprint on the country, the United States and Ethiopia have long been close economic and security partners. And while Washington hasn’t led diplomatic efforts to resolve this crisis, it has been a significant player. As relations between Ethiopia and the United States continue to fray, with Ethiopia likely turning to China for greater support, Beijing can be expected to feel that it is scoring points in its strategic rivalry with the United States.
A 2020 USIP report on China’s engagement in the Red Sea region found that, “Although instability has benefitted China in some ways by feeding a narrative of U.S. strategic failure, Beijing has a greater interest in a stable region free of failed states.” However, it also concluded that “short of situations in which Chinese economic or security interests are severely threatened … Beijing is unlikely to use its influence to prevent regional rivalries from exacerbating conflicts in the arena.” Instead, Beijing would practice a policy of “detachment.”
But China arguably has more at stake in Ethiopia than in any other country in Africa. Ethiopia is on a path that would certainly damage substantial Chinese economic interests both within the country and beyond its borders. Some have suggested that China will continue making every effort to support the Abiy government, including by defending Addis Ababa’s sovereignty in the face of human rights abuse charges. Could Beijing be pressured to go beyond its relative detachment to play a positive diplomatic role?
All Powers and Players Are Needed for Peace
U.S. diplomacy is struggling for a reason. Were China to pivot to active diplomacy by engaging with the TPLF, or even use political capital to pressure the Abiy government, it would find a very challenging task ahead. Growing violence, including against civilians, is worsening Ethiopia’s deep ethnic and regional divisions. U.S. concerns over growing Chinese influence in Africa rightly touch upon key issues of governance, human rights and economic and strategic competition. But while Chinese influence in Africa has expanded significantly over the last two decades, it has its limits. Despite its considerable investments, China acting alone is powerless to stop the forces of disunity and violence that gravely threaten Ethiopia.
Forging peace in Ethiopia will require the negotiation and implementation of new political arrangements that strike a workable regional power balance. This is mainly for Ethiopians to decide — but outside parties could incentivize the compromises needed for peace. There is now an opportunity to shift course and consolidate an international approach. Prime Minister Abiy has indicated a willingness to support dialogue and has released some key — but not all — political prisoners. The Tigrayan government has announced the withdrawal of its forces back to Tigray and has called for negotiations. The international community — everyone, not just the West — surely acknowledges that Ethiopia’s economic sustainability is key to regional stability and the survival of Ethiopia as a sovereign entity. A concerted effort by external stakeholders, including China, is crucial at this time.
The Biden administration should recognize China’s economic vulnerability and stake in stability in Ethiopia as it implements its diplomatic efforts. The United States should aim to forge African Union pressure on China to encourage the Abiy government, now with the military upper hand, to pursue meaningful negotiations and a peaceful resolution to the conflict. Chinese efforts could come behind the scenes so as not to spoil Beijing’s “non-interference” posture.
It is possible, even likely, that Beijing is uninterested in constructive, African-led diplomacy in Ethiopia and would rather position itself to see diplomatic efforts fail, maybe picking up some pieces from U.S. economic disengagement. But if Beijing won’t constructively engage in Ethiopia, given its high stakes there, where would they work for peace in Africa? Every day of conflict sees many Ethiopian lives tragically lost — will Beijing be part of an African solution or allow an African crisis to continue?