Friday, May 20, 2022

Is China Evading The Principle of Non-Intervention In the Horn of Africa?

Washington, DC – Earlier this year, with the visit of Wang Yi to the Horn of Africa, China had announced setting up the post of the Special Envoy to the region. The region faces instability due to the Tigray War in Ethiopia, the political instability due to delayed elections in Somalia, and the problematic implementation of the South Sudan deal. With the appointment of a new envoy, China is attempting to play a more active role in the region’s critical geopolitical issues.

Following Wang Yi’s announcement, China has recently designated a senior diplomat Xue Bing as Special Envoy to the region. Xue, who was previously Ambassador to Papua New Guinea, also served as a diplomat to other nations in Africa, the Americas, and Oceania. He began his African journey by visiting Eritrea, Ethiopia, Djibouti, Somalia, and Kenya, with Uganda and South Sudan also on the horizon. He announced that China would host the first peace conference in the conflict-ridden region to provide a venue for the regional governments to negotiate their problems and try to solve the disputes amicably. 

The countries in the region are strategic partners of China, rich in resources, and strategic in geopolitical terms. Peace and security in the area are essential for China to implement its projects. Therefore, China has put forward the dialogue of peace and development to provide a platform for countries to come together to settle their differences through consultations and negotiations. Kenya and Ethiopia agreed to host the conference in the first half of this year. 

The Horn of Africa has long been marred with civil wars, Islamist insurgencies, and military coups threatening Chinese investments, most recently in Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Somalia. Special Envoy Xue visited all three countries. In Ethiopia, where the regime is in bloody conflict with Tigrayan rebels, Xue met Demeke Mekonne, the Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister, to discuss investments in railways and ports as well as negotiations efforts to resolve conflicts. 

In Somalia, militancy by Jihadist fundamentalist group al-Shabab threatens regional security, particularly in its southern neighbor Kenya, which had been forced by previous terrorist attacks to send troops across the border. In January 2022, eight construction vehicles and equipment belonging to a Chinese construction company were set ablaze by suspected al-Shabab militants in Lamu on the Kenyan coast. The attacks have disrupted construction projects, prompting Chinese Ambassador Zhou Ping Jian to hold talks with Kenya’s Security Chief. 

Xue also visited Djibouti, home to China’s first overseas military base. From Nairobi, he now plans to proceed to Uganda and South Sudan. In Ethiopia, he stated that China wants to bring regional countries together to address security and development issues. China will try to help countries in the region achieve self-sufficiency in terms of long-term stability, prosperity, and development.

Therefore, the Envoy will have to balance China’s economic and commercial interest in the region and the regional security challenges. China has a vast investment interest in the Horn of Africa, and the countries in the area are also a significant destination for its development loans. For instance, Ethiopia is a major destination for Chinese infrastructure loans, foreign direct investment, and political cooperation because the African Union headquarters is located in the capital Addis Ababa. On the other hand, Djibouti had become the center of Beijing’s regional security interests, with its only overseas military base located there. However, the worsening security situation in some countries has put Chinese infrastructure projects, including ports, highways, power projects, dams, and railways in the region under the Belt and Road Initiative at peril. Balancing these interests against the security issues in the region will be a challenging task for China, and the Special Envoy will have to play the role of a mediator to safeguard investment and economic interests.

The appointment of a senior diplomat as Special Envoy to the region indicates the importance and seriousness China accords to the region. China believes in the developmental peace approach that infrastructure and manufacturing support will spur peace and stability in the region. However, in the case of the Horn of Africa, prolonged insecurity, issues of boundary differences, and ethnic and regional conflicts might crash Beijing’s ambitions, and China will have to adjust its approach according to these realities. 

The appointment also points out that China is set to play an increasingly active role in mediating the regional conflicts in the Horn of Africa. China has, however, long held a non-interventionist stance when it comes to peace and security in other countries. Previously, during the Sudan crisis, the core Chinese foreign policy principle of non-intervention had come under increasing and visible strain. Many commentators have pointed out that China’s policy of non-intervention is self-serving, i.e., the policy lets Beijing take the credit if the process is successful, else evades full responsibility if efforts are unsuccessful.

Xue mentioned that Africa should be left to chart its own course out of problems without external interference. Wang Yi also noted that the “Horn of Africa nations should decide their own destiny and convene a peace conference.” However, the recent efforts by Beijing point to emergent interventionist behavior. China is also increasing its military might in the region. This could potentially act as a force multiplier to its interventional efforts if Chinese interests are threatened in the event of failure of dialogue. Needless to say, China will have to make efforts to preserve its existing stakes in the region, and balancing these with the policy of non-intervention will be a challenging task for Beijing. 


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