China is offering to help “silence the guns in the Horn of Africa,” an ambitious undertaking given the multiple conflicts in the region, and an indication that Beijing may be moving away from its traditional “non-interference” stance towards more active diplomatic engagement.
China’s special envoy for the Horn of Africa, Xue Bing, made the offer last week at a peace conference organized by Chinese officials in Addis Ababa. The Chinese government has historically avoided getting involved in foreign disputes, but some observers see the event as evidence that Beijing seeks to rival the U.S. as an international conflict mediator. Others saw it more as a pragmatic move by a major investor in the region to keep its interests safe.
The conference itself did not get into specific proposals for resolving several ongoing security crises, but the Chinese envoy said Beijing wants to become more involved.
“This is the first time for China to play a role in the area of security,” said Xue, who was appointed to his position earlier this year, adding that Beijing wants a more important role “not only in trade and investments but also in the area of peace and development.”
China has some 400 construction and manufacturing projects worth over $4 billion in Ethiopia alone, according to the United States Institute of Peace. However, Ethiopia has been mired in vicious ethnic conflict since 2020, with the federal government in Addis Ababa fighting rebel forces in the northern Tigray region.
Peace talks are set to begin soon, but there’s disagreement between the warring factions over who should serve as mediator, the African Union or Kenya.
“As Africa’s largest single-country trade partner, China acknowledges the economic necessity of stability in regional anchor countries such as Ethiopia,” Fonteh Akum, executive director of the Pretoria-based Institute for Security Studies, told VOA.
Much of the rest of the region is also in crisis. Northern neighbor Eritrea has been murkily involved in the war in Tigray, while Ethiopia’s eastern neighbor, Somalia, has been ravaged by conflict and Islamist insurgency for decades. To the west, South Sudan is navigating a tenuous peace after years of civil war, while Sudan recently underwent a military coup. Just this week, the Sudanese and Ethiopian armies clashed over a disputed border region.
So China has its work cut out for it, and it’s not the first country to try. Washington’s own Horn of Africa envoy, David Satterfield, stayed only three months in the job before quitting earlier this year. President Joe Biden’s envoy before him, Jeffrey Feltman, lasted less than a year.
The joint statement released at the end of China’s peace conference — which was attended by foreign ministry officials from regional countries and during which no specific conflict was even discussed — was extremely vague. It said only that all parties had agreed to “maintain peace and stability.”
“I think despite the holding of this peace forum it’s not clear what they can offer in terms of mediation to the federal government and the other Ethiopian conflict actors,” said William Davison, senior Ethiopia analyst at International Crisis Group.
“It isn’t clear that there’s the political commitment from Beijing, or the understanding of the political complexities, or the diplomatic capacity to really get involved in talks,” he told VOA.
Washington has placed sanctions on Ethiopia, much to the annoyance of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, who has also described China as Addis Ababa’s “most reliable friend.” China’s ambassador to the United Nations spoke out against imposing sanctions at the U.N. Security Council last year.
“There’s concern in Addis about so-called Western meddling and the U.S. pushing its agenda onto Ethiopia’s civil war,” Davison said. “So it wouldn’t be a surprise if Ethiopia preferred the far more non-interfering approach of China in the context of peace talks.”
Adhere Cavince, an independent Kenyan international relations analyst, concurred, saying some Western interventions in the Ethiopian conflict had “not been very kindly received.”
“The U.S. responded with sanctions, with conditions, with threats … and this is quite different from what the Chinese are saying,” he told VOA, referring to the fact that China is focused on development rather than human rights concerns.
The Chinese Communist Party has always maintained that stability is necessary for development and the Horn region is a key part of its global infrastructure project, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
China has funded railways and highways in Kenya, built the African Union headquarters in Addis Ababa, and constructed a railway from landlocked Ethiopia to Djibouti — where it also has set up its first overseas military base. It will be looking to protect this strategic base as well as shipping lanes and its own nationals working in the region.
“From an economic perspective, stability in the region will help China to move deeper in eastern Africa, which is a center point of its BRI in Africa,” said Christian Géraud Neema Byamungu, an analyst at the China-Global South Project.
Whether they can do it by offering economic integration and development projects, Neema Byamungu said, is another question.
“The conflicts in the region are not only economically rooted, they’re also socially and culturally rooted … and this is one of the areas where China lacks experience,” he told VOA.
Still, it seems China wants to send a message to Washington that it, too, can help foster stability abroad. Mediation with Chinese characteristics might look quite different however, with a focus not on human rights and democratization but economic development.
A recent column on Africa in China’s state-affiliated Global Times newspaper suggests as much, positing that as a good thing.
“Although some Western countries like the US also offer mediation in the region, China has an advantage compared to them, which is that China never takes sides or interferes with regional countries domestic affairs,” it read.
But analysts don’t think this will necessarily play in China’s favor, particularly in Ethiopia.
“Its neutrality wasn’t well received by the Tigray people,” who didn’t have a representative present at the peace conference, noted Neema Byamungu.
Davison said as China has always supported the government of the day, “it’s unlikely that the other actors, most notably the Tigray regional leadership, would be interested in China playing a mediating role.”
But for Cavince, “the Horn of Africa countries are simply welcoming of what the Chinese are proposing on the basis of the fact that it is not confrontational, it is not forceful, it is based on mutual consent.”
“Whether China is going to be successful in its mediation efforts in Africa is a question whose time hasn’t come, it lies in the future,” he said.