National Pride, Power and China’s Political Calculus in Ethiopia
(Dr Romain Dittgen and Abel Abate Demissie)
Contrary to the predominant perception of all of China’s key partners in Africa being either resource rich or economic powerhouses, Ethiopia is neither. Its strategic position within the Horn of Africa and its stable and efficient – although coercive – government, coupled with the concentration of regional institutions in Addis Ababa, have gradually turned Ethiopia into one of the main entry points into Africa. While pursuing its own development path, the Ethiopian government has also been drawing inspiration from success stories in East Asia, not least China.
In terms of engaging with foreign partners, Ethiopia is increasingly skilled in linking its national development priorities to its foreign policy strategies. As a result, the ruling party’s firm grip on the economy and on political power is having a direct impact on its engagement with foreign actors. By focusing on the themes of peace and security, human security and governance capacity building, this paper not only explores the nature of political cultures and concepts of power in Ethiopia but also looks at the ways in which China navigates this complex political landscape (both domestically and regionally) while seeking to expand its foothold and bargaining power on the ground.
Bilateral relations between Ethiopia and China have improved significantly over the past two decades. Between 2003 and 2013 the yearly volume of bilateral trade has multiplied by more than 13 and China has become not only Ethiopia’s biggest foreign investor but also its largest trading partner. As part of its expanding role and tangible presence in the country, the Chinese government has constructed large-scale projects in Ethiopia, including the Express Toll Way, the first operative wind power plant, the Addis Ababa Light Track Railway, the Ethiopia–Djibouti railway line, the Tirunesh-Beijing Hospital and a Confucius Institute. This level of co-operation has also been strengthened by the relative proximity in political ideology between the EPRDF and the CPC.
Both Chinese and Ethiopian officials proudly refer to the longevity of their own history (5 000 and more than 2 000 years respectively), and speak about the importance and ownership of their state-led developmental path. Since Xi’s coming to power in 2013, domestic politics in China have been dominated by the ‘Four Comprehensives’ political guidelines. Less vague than the ‘Chinese dream’ concept, the aims of the ‘Four Comprehensives’ are for China to ‘(re)build a modern and prosperous society in all respects by 2020’, ‘strengthen the rule of law and improve the party’s conduct’, ‘enforce party discipline’ and ‘strengthen reforms’, with the last three being seen as strategic steps. Despite strong party-to-party links between the two countries, it is difficult to assess whether and how much these domestic Chinese guidelines are spilling over into the Ethiopian context.
As outlined in the course of this paper, Chinese influence in the fields of governance and politics in Ethiopia appears to be quite constrained, due to the nature of Ethiopian statecraft and the strong vertical as well as horizontal dimensions of power and control practised by the ruling party. Nonetheless, the EPRDF’s developmental rhetoric of enforcing strong limitations on personalised rent-seeking, clamping down on corruption and accelerating economic reforms, resonates strongly with the ‘Four Comprehensives’ envisaged by the Chinese leadership. This said, China’s power of persuasion is mostly limited to being perceived as an example of economic success, while, politically speaking, Ethiopia is much more drawn to emulate experiences from South Korea and Japan.
For Western partners, the importance is to assess when this eventual turning point – the evolution from a purely developmental approach to a broadening of the political discourse – might happen. Until then, maintaining a stable and effective government seems to form the basis of a tacit agreement between Western and Chinese stakeholders.
If complementaries between the broader ‘West’ and China in Ethiopia seem limited to contributing to development priorities, the importance of the regional focus provides numerous avenues for dialogue and collaboration. The most obvious one comes in the form of China’s intensified interest in engaging the AU alongside other Western powers. In the field of peace and security, where China is also becoming more active, it is fairly easy to provide practical inputs as the framework is already entrenched.
The African Peace and Security Architecture, which offers a complete overview – from prevention and management to post-conflict reconstruction and development – allows development partners to engage in specific areas. However, while the AU holds ownership at the strategic level, most financial support is still coming from the outside. According to the director of a research institute in Addis Ababa, ‘donors have a lot to say and are able to influence the decision-making process’.
As a newcomer in this position, China is willing to be guided and learn from its more established counterparts. At present, Beijing is more comfortable in supporting peacekeeping missions than getting too involved in conflict prevention and mediation. Yet Beijing’s reaction to recent terrorist attacks (also directly affecting Chinese citizens), as well as the confirmation that a logistics hub for military operations will be set up in Djibouti, not only signals a broader, more active role for China but also provides possibilities to collaborate with Western countries, both at AU level and throughout the Horn of Africa.