Academic journal article China Perspectives

China and Ethiopia: Authoritarian Affinities and Economic Cooperation

Academic journal article China Perspectives

China and Ethiopia: Authoritarian Affinities and Economic Cooperation

Article excerpt

Why has the China-Ethiopia relationship become so important and so close over the last ten years? From the Chinese government's viewpoint, this country of about 85 million people is largely de- void of raw materials and other wealth above or below the ground, unlike the two Sudans, Nigeria, or Angola. It does have some oil and gas in the eastern desert, the Ogaden, but that is a danger zone: in 2007, nine Chinese workers from the Zhongyuan Petroleum Exploration Bureau were killed (and seven others kidnapped) by the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF). Its minerals are largely unexploited if not unexplored. Moreover, Ethiopia is among the poorest of the least developed economies, standing 157th (out of 169 countries) in the UN human development index, with a per capita GNP of a mere 350 US dollars: (1) even mild drought leads to famines miti- gated only by of the state's ability to scramble a response. The effects of the 2008 economic crisis are still felt despite an annual GNP growth rate of 8 to 10 percent between 2000 and 2011 and 11.4 percent in 2010-2011. Further, Ethiopia stands at the heart of the Horn of Africa, an area of high unrest, consisting of a failed state (Somalia), an isolated problem neighbour (Eritrea), a quasi-state (Somaliland), and a newly independent state that has yet to achieve stability (South Sudan). (2)

Nevertheless, China is very much present in Ethiopia and enjoys a close and special relationship with its government. This article will show that, on both sides, the establishment of this partnership was motivated as much by diplomatic, strategic, and even ideological considerations as economic ones. To stretch this hypothesis further, for Beijing's purposes, economic and trade cooperation with Addis Ababa is a means rather than an end in itself. For Ethiopia, however, partnership with China mainly serves the internal political and economic purposes of the regime that has been in place since 1991, under Prime Minister Meles Zenawi for 20 years and, since his death in August 2012, under his successor Haile- mariam Desalegn.

Among China's reasons are Addis Ababa being the seat of the African Union's (AU's) headquarters as well as that of the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (ECA); Ethiopia's position as the second most popu- lous country in the continent after Nigeria, expected to have a population of 170 million by 2050; its regional, even continental role; its strategic lo- cation, especially its control of the Blue Nile's source (Lake Tana); the size of its needs in terms of development; and finally its political stability, the government's authoritarian character, and the state's economic centrality.

Ethiopia's interest is that China is actively engaged in its economic devel- opment and, as elsewhere in Africa, helps opening the game: its loans and infrastructure projects, its accessibility, its affinities with Prime Minister Meles's "Colbertist" development model - all these factors also nurture the partnership.

The relationship is not without difficulties and imbalances that could trip up the rapprochement in the future, or at least cause upsets or diminish its importance. For the moment, though, Beijing is strengthening its presence in Addis Ababa, which Ethiopians like to improperly refer to as "Africa's cap- ital."(3) Ethiopia is part of the group of so-called "Sino-optimist" countries, as against "Sino-pragmatists" and "Sino-pessimists," going by the categories proposed by Seifudein Adem. (4) Ethiopia is now seduced by China's eco- nomic success somewhat like, mutatis mutandis, it was attracted in 1920- 1930 by the success of Japan, the first non-Western power to modernise.(5)

China-Ethiopia relations since 1991: Gradual forging of a special partnership

Emperor Haile Selassie established diplomatic relations with the People's Republic of China (PRC) in 1970, but the 1974 revolution, which led to the emergence of a regime close to the Soviet Union, provoked a distancing of Addis Ababa-Beijing links until the late 1980s. …

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