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Nile dispute absent from first peace conference led by China to settle conflicts in Horn of Africa

China avoided the controversial GERD dispute between Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia during the first peace conference held in Addis Ababa to settle the disputes plaguing the Horn of Africa.
Xue Bing (C), China's special envoy to the Horn of Africa, speaks as Redwan Hussein, national security adviser to the prime minister of Ethiopia looks on during the first Horn of Africa peace conference, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, June 20, 2022.

China’s first special envoy to the Horn of Africa Xue Bing has recently offered to mediate in the turbulent region’s conflicts, as Beijing seeks to bolster its influence and protect its investments in the area.

Speaking at the China-Horn of Africa Peace, Governance and Development Conference held June 20 in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa, Xue said he is ready to provide mediation for the peaceful settlement of disputes based on the will of the countries in the region. 

Besides Ethiopia, the conference was attended by foreign ministers and government officials from Sudan, Somalia, South Sudan, Kenya, Uganda and Djibouti.

During the conference, Xue said it was important to “respect countries' sovereignty and territorial integrity, refrain from interfering in other countries' internal affairs … [and] reject abuse of unilateral sanctions."

He continued that China is convinced that the countries in the Horn of Africa have the ability to resolve their differences through dialogue. Xue stressed that China will continue to support the region so they achieve a common and comprehensive security vision and safeguard regional peace and security.

Redwan Hussein, national security adviser to the Ethiopian prime minister, said at the opening of the conference that the resolution of the conflicts plaguing the region “should come from within,” as he noted that China was only providing support when needed.

In February, China appointed Xue to support the efforts deployed to overcome security challenges in the Horn of Africa, including in Ethiopia, Eritrea and Somalia. Beijing is seeking to preserve its interests and enhance its geopolitical influence at the expense of its rival in the region, the United States.

In March, Xue, a veteran diplomat, embarked on his first tour of the conflict-torn region, which included stops in Ethiopia, Eritrea, Djibouti, Somalia, Kenya, Uganda and South Sudan.

Beijing has been active for years in the Horn of Africa, which it finds to be of great strategic importance. Also, the Horn of Africa, according to Beijing, offers a privileged environment for investments due to the availability of untapped natural resources.

Although Beijing presents itself as a supporter of stability in the Horn of Africa, the dispute over the controversial Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) between Ethiopia, Egypt and Sudan failed to make it on Xue’s agenda during his regional tour in March, and recently at the peace conference in Addis Ababa.

Ethiopia has close ties with Beijing. During his meeting with Xue in March, Ethiopian Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Demeke Mekonnen praised “China’s support for his country in international forums.” He said that “Beijing has helped his country thwart threats to its sovereignty and territorial integrity.”

Mekonnen also praised China’s stance on the GERD in support of the principle of “African solution to African problems.”

John Calabrese, director of the Middle East-Asia Project at the Middle East Institute, told Al-Monitor that Ethiopia is a regional “heavyweight” in the Horn of Africa. “It appears that Beijing sees Ethiopia as a key outpost from which to extend its political influence and commercial reach,” he said.

He added, “Given Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed's initial political instincts and tendencies, which earned him the Nobel Prize, Ethiopia appeared on a pathway to stability — and thus, a seemingly good candidate to serve as the centerpiece of China's Africa policy.”

China, along with Russia, has repeatedly used its veto right in the United Nations Security Council against any resolution condemning the violations committed by the federal Ethiopian government against the rebels in the northern Tigray region, as Beijing considered the issue to be domestic and not one the UN should meddle in.

China also opposed US sanctions on Ethiopia and Eritrea, both accused of committing brutal rapes and massacres in Tigray.

In addition to political support, China also provided military support to Ethiopia. According to the Oryxspioenkop website for security and defense affairs, China provided the Ethiopian government with drones in support of the war in the Tigray region.

Chinese companies are also heavily investing in Ethiopia’s textile, pharmaceutical, construction and manufacturing industries. China views Ethiopia as a hub for its Belt and Road Initiative, which aims to expand its commercial influence into the Horn of Africa.

According to the Ethiopian Investment Commission, by the end of June 2020, Ethiopia had approved more than 1,500 investment projects from China amounting to $2.7 billion and accounting for 25% of the total direct investment projects in Ethiopia.

China’s loans to Ethiopia totaled more than $13 billion between 2000 and 2019, as Beijing holds more than 50% of Addis Ababa’s foreign debt.

China also contributed to the financing of the GERD project, as it provided a loan of about $1 billion to help build transmission lines to and from Addis Ababa to provide the services necessary for the construction of the dam. Beijing is also investing $1.8 billion to fund the expansion of Ethiopia’s electricity grid while two Chinese companies are involved in building the GERD.

However, China also has huge investments in Egypt and Sudan.

In Egypt, Chinese banks are involved in financing the new administrative capital being built outside Cairo, and the China State Construction Engineering Corporation is one of the main contractors.

The volume of Chinese direct investments in Egypt amounted to $190 million, as the volume of trade exchange stood at $14.5 billion in 2020. Egypt is also an important country for the Belt and Road Initiative as it constitutes a gateway for Chinese goods to markets on the African continent.

Add to this that China remained for a period of time Sudan’s largest trading partner, and Sudan was one of the first countries to sign the Belt and Road Agreement, which Beijing considers important given Khartoum’s strategic ports on the Red Sea.

The volume of trade between the two countries stood at $2.8 billion in 2017, accounting for 21% of Sudan’s total imports and exports. Chinese investments in Sudan are distributed in the oil, infrastructure, agriculture and mining sectors.

Calabrese said, “Ethiopia is not China's privileged partner, and certainly not an exclusive partner. Here, then, is China's dilemma: how to safeguard its investments, not to mention its citizens when relations between its regional partners deteriorate without being drawn into their conflict and succumbing to the pressure to choose sides.”

China did not present itself as a mediator in the GERD dispute, which is likely to explode at any moment and leave repercussions on the already volatile region.

Calabrese said, “No doubt that Beijing sees the GERD dispute as exceedingly important.” 

He pointed out that the success of China's Belt and Road Initiative and the considerable investment of Chinese state-backed companies in these countries hinges on peace between and stability within them.

However, he expects that Beijing will not get drawn into a complex mediatory process unless and until all the disputing parties show clear evidence of a willingness to compromise and clamor for China to serve as mediator. “Even then, China would likely prefer to play a supportive rather than a leading diplomatic role,” he added.

The mega hydroelectric dam project that Addis Ababa is building on the Blue Nile, the main tributary of the Nile, at a cost of $5 billion, has raised tensions with Egypt and Sudan, as they both fear it will limit their supplies of vital Nile waters.

For more than a decade, Egypt and Sudan have failed to persuade Ethiopia to agree to a legal binding agreement regulating the filling and operation of the dam.

In the summer of 2021, tensions increased when Ethiopia announced the completion of the second filling phase of the dam’s reservoir, despite Egypt and Sudan’s rejection of the unilateral decision. Ethiopia is also planning to unilaterally proceed with the third filling phase of the dam’s reservoir this August and September, and this could ignite the conflict.

Last year, Egypt and Sudan managed to include the GERD issue on the agenda of the UN Security Council despite Ethiopia's opposition to the step. Subsequently, the council issued a presidential statement calling on the three countries to resume their talks under the auspices of the African Union, which has since sought to resume negotiations, to no avail.

In the meantime, China's position on the dam issue at the Security Council meeting was not up to Egypt’s expectations.

China’s permanent representative to the United Nations, Zhang Jun, said in a speech at the 2021 UN Security Council meeting that his country believes that through joint efforts, the GERD can serve as a tripartite development project capable of promoting feasible cooperation for all parties. This Chinese position was deemed supportive of the Ethiopian point of view.

In his statements after the Security Council session back in 2021, Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry said that the position of states in the council is subject to political considerations, alignments and interests.

However, Egypt and Sudan still hope to restart the stalled negotiations over the GERD, as Ethiopia prepares to move ahead with the third filling of the dam.