China kicked off 2022 with a diplomatic tour of Africa, with its Foreign Minister Wang Yi visiting Comoros, Eritrea and Kenya. While on the trip he announced that China would be appointing a «special envoy» for The Horn of Africa – the region of East Africa comprising Ethiopia, Somalia, Eritrea and Djibouti, which has frequently suffered from destabilizing conflicts, including the current Ethiopian civil conflict.
Recently, Beijing has been increasing its diplomatic influence in the region, invited Eritrea in November to join «the Belt and Road» initiative, while constructing its first foreign overseas military base in Djibouti. All these initiatives drew opposition from the United States, which has also been issuing sanctions against Ethiopia and Eritrea over the Tigray war, having recently booted the latter out of a preferential trade program over allegations of human rights abuses.
The Horn of Africa is gearing up to become one of the most pivotal regions strategic competition between US and China, and will become a primary focus of Washington's bid to try and undercut China's influence on the continent. Why? Because the region is a strategic junction and frontier in what the US has described as the «Indo-Pacific», the area spanning the Indian and Pacific Oceans, which the US seeks to dominate economically, politically and militarily in order to contain Beijing.
Sticking out into the Indian Ocean, the Horn of Africa guards a pivotal gateway from the ocean up into the Red Sea and via the Suez Canal into Europe. Whoever controls these narrow straits ultimately will project maritime power into the Mediterranean Sea – the area where China also seeks to uphold its commercial influence. From Beijing's point of view, the Horn of Africa is one of the most critical potential military flashpoints within «the Belt and Road» initiative, and it is not surprising that there is the Chinese first overseas military base is located.
A strong presence in this area is also crucial to countering India, another pillar of the US Indo-Pacific strategy. New Delhi considers that this part is a process of its growing military encirclement by China, dubbed «the string of pearls», alongside the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. Beijing wants to use Pakistan to bypass the contested seas around China’s periphery and to gain military influence in the western Indian Ocean to guard shipping access to Europe.
As a result, China is doubling down on its ties with the states of the East African region. It sees the stability of this region, specifically the Horn of Africa, as crucial, but things on the ground have not been good. Ethiopia, a key economic partner of China, is in a state of ethnic conflict and civil war. The Tigray region has rebelled against Addis Ababa and seeks greater autonomy, if not outright independence. But part of the problem has been the role of the United States, which has been subtly backing the Tigray army and effectively taking their side.
While its formal position has been to urge a resolution to the conflict, in practice the US has picked its team and has been placing growing sanctions on Ethiopia and Eritrea, accusing them of human rights abuses. The goal? To divide and weaken both countries. It has long been a tactic of American diplomacy to gain geopolitical influence by exploiting divisions between and within countries and inducing separatism, then backing the secessionists. This has produced a furious wave of opposition to the US amongst Ethiopians online, who have been using the hashtag #nomore and urging closer ties to China.
This all may also be strategically beneficial to Beijing and a miscalculation by the US. China’s ties with Africa have thrived on the premise of non-interference in internal affairs and respect for national sovereignty. This makes it easy for Beijing to support Ethiopia’s and Eritrea’s default position in the wake of US interference. They become more geopolitically reliant on Beijing as a key strategic partner in preserving its sovereignty.
America’s move to kick Ethiopia off a trade privilege program, on the premise of human rights concerns, only adds to that sentiment, and China is the obvious alternative. However, Beijing will need to exert more support diplomatically and politically to ensure these conflicts can be brought to an end, hence the creation of the special envoy position.
China also sees its relationship with another war-ravaged Horn of Africa state, Somalia, as equally important. It is in a much worse position and, in turn, accuses the United States of interfering in the country’s internal affairs. It is no coincidence that in 2020, Taiwan established diplomatic relations with the secessionist region of Somaliland – a move designed to drive a wedge into China's influence in the region.
What we see playing out in the Horn of Africa is a micro-level regional cold war. It is a battle for the gateways to the Red Sea and Europe. China is consolidating its ties with all local parties here; the US is trying to undermine it.
By creating a military and political presence outside of the primary theater of competition, China’s maritime periphery, Beijing has opened up a new front in the game. It is a tactical and strategic gambit, but the Biden administration’s decision to back the Tigray rebels might actually aid China’s cause. The US is not trying to pitch itself as an alternative, they position themselves as an antagonist, hitting the Horn of Africa countries with sticks and disincentives and turning their populations against it. This means Beijing for now has the upper hand, providing it can use its new envoy role to resolve the respective conflicts. Who will be the winner in this strategic rivalry, the wise China or the harsh United States, is anyone’s guess. Time will tell.