The story so far: China has been investing across the African continent throughout the last decade. While the emphasis has been on investments and raw materials, it took a new turn on June 20, with the first “China-Horn of Africa Peace, Governance and Development Conference.” Beijing’s first special envoy to the region Xue Bing, appointed in February 2022, said that this is the first time China aims “to play a role in the area of security”. The conference held in Ethiopia witnessed the participation of foreign Ministries from the following countries of the Horn: Kenya, Djibouti, Ethiopia, Sudan, Somalia, South Sudan, and Uganda.
What are the recent projects between China and countries from the Horn of Africa?
China’s focus on the Horn is a part of its focus on Africa. In January 2022, during his 17th trip to Africa, China’s Foreign Minister and State Councillor Wang Yi focused on increasing the infrastructural investments in African countries. He refuted accusations of debt-trapping the countries and asserted China’s three objectives in Africa: controlling the pandemic, implementing a Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) outcomes, and upholding common interests while fighting hegemonic politics.
The FOCAC promotes China’s role in the infrastructural and societal development of the Horn. In the 2021 forum, the entire region of the Horn participated and four resolutions were adopted: the Dakar Action Plan, the China-Africa Cooperation Vision 2035, the Sino-African Declaration on Climate Change and the Declaration of the Eighth Ministerial Conference of FOCAC.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, China donated over 3,00,000 vaccines to Ethiopia and Uganda, and 2,00,000 vaccines to Kenya and Somalia. Sudan and Eritrea have also benefited from China’s vaccine diplomacy.
Beijing has also initiated the “2035 vision for China-Africa cooperation”; it aims to transform the health sector, alleviate poverty, promote trade and investments, and expand digital innovation. The vision also focuses on green development, capacity building, improving people-to-people exchanges and facilitating peace and security in the continent.
What are China’s primary interests/investments in the Horn of Africa?
China’s interests are related to four major areas: infrastructural projects, financial assistance, natural resources and maritime interests. Looking at Chinese investments in infrastructure, one of its landmark projects was fully funding the $200 million African Union headquarters in Addis Ababa. It has also made significant investments in railways; it is building the Addis-Djibouti railway line connecting the land-locked country with Eritrean ports in the Red Sea. China has also invested in the Mombasa-Nairobi rail link in Kenya, and has already delivered on railway projects in Sudan. It also has a viable military hardware market in Ethiopia and has built over 80 infrastructural projects in Somalia, including hospitals, roads, schools and stadiums. In Djibouti, 14 infrastructural projects are funded by China.
With respect to financial assistance, Ethiopia, is one of the top five African recipients of Chinese investments, and also has a debt of almost $14 billion. China accounts for 67% of Kenya’s bilateral debt. In 2022, China promised to provide $15.7 million assistance to Eritrea.
The third major Chinese interest in Africa is the presence of natural resources — oil and coal. Beijing has invested $400 million in Mombasa’s oil terminal. China is also interested in minerals such as gold, iron-ore, precious stones, chemicals, oil and natural gas in Ethiopia. South Sudan, a source for petroleum products, has had continued Beijing investment in the industry since the latter’s initial entry in 1995.
The fourth major area is related to maritime interests. China’s first and only military base outside its mainland is in Djibouti. During his visit in early 2022, Wang hinted at China’s willingness to develop Eritrea’s coast which would connect to China’s investments in land-locked Ethiopia. The U.S. has speculated that China wishes to build another military base in Kenya and Tanzania, thereby increasing its military presence in the region.
Has the Horn of Africa been welcoming of China’s presence?
Africa has been keen on interacting with China. Despite the wariness surrounding China’s projects in Africa, the governments have mostly been welcoming. When conflict broke out in Tigray in November 2020, Addis Ababa appreciated Beijing for respecting Ethiopia’s sovereignty. In December 2021, Kenya defended Chinese projects in the country; President Uhuru Kenyatta maintained that China-Africa partnership was mutually beneficial. In November 2021, Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni suggested that China give access to its markets, in a fashion similar to the U.S. or Europe.
Similarly, in May 2022, the East African Community (EAC) Secretary General Peter Mathuki said the EAC would welcome Chinese investors to work in East Africa for the prosperity of the people.
Is China’s new focus on peace in the Horn a shift from Beijing’s principle of non-intervention?
Peace and stability is a mutual requirement for China and Africa. For Africa, Chinese investments could lead to stable environments which could help the countries achieve their peace and development objectives. For China, conflict in the region comes at a heavy cost. In Ethiopia. when the conflict broke out, over 600 Chinese nationals, working on different projects, were evacuated, putting several investments at risk. From a trading perspective, the region plays a significant role in achieving the objectives of the China-Africa Cooperation Vision 2035.
China’s move towards peace in Africa indicates a shift in its principle of non-intervention. It is China’s message that its presence in the continent has a larger objective and is not likely to be limited to the Horn of Africa. This includes an aim to project itself as a global leader and boost its international status. Further, the recent developments imply that China is focussing on a multifaceted growth in the continent for the long run. For Africa, China’s presence is an alternative to the European powers, many of whom are facing criticism from African governments. Further, African governments, which do not conform to Western standards of democracy, interact better with powers like China and Russia.
The authors are research associates at the National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bengaluru