As China-Horn of Africa Peace Conference ends, Beijing's envoy offers to play regional security role

·7 min read

As China seeks to play a bigger role in promoting peace and security in the Horn of Africa, it faces complex challenges in bringing lasting stability to the region, where it has large investment and security interests.

During the China-Horn of Africa Peace Conference, the Chinese special envoy for the region, Xue Bing, said China wanted a more important role "not only in trade and investments but also in the area of peace and development".

"This is the first time for China to play a role in the area of security," Xue said on Tuesday.

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"Beijing will also provide assistance in kind, in peacekeeping, cooperate in law enforcement and speed up the assistance of criminal investigation lab equipment to countries in the region," he added.

In joint statement released at the end of the conference on Tuesday, participants said they had agreed to "uphold the vision to work together to maintain peace and security in the region".

Under its multibillion-dollar Belt and Road Initiative, China has funded and built huge infrastructure projects in the region, including a railroad running from the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa to Djibouti. It has invested in Djibouti's maritime sector, including the country's ports and free-trade zones, and built its first overseas military base near the Bab el-Mandeb passageway between the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea. Beijing has funded the building of a railway running from the port city of Mombasa in Kenya to the capital Nairobi with an extension to Naivasha, in Central Rift Valley.

But the Horn - which includes Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia, South Sudan and Sudan - has long been racked by civil wars, Islamist insurgencies and military coups.

On Monday, the Chinese envoy had offered to mediate disputes in the region. "I am ready to provide mediation efforts for the peaceful settlement of disputes based on the will of countries in this region," Xue said. But on Tuesday, he said the meeting "did not discuss a specific conflict (or) dispute".

Foreign ministry officials from Ethiopia, Sudan, Somalia, South Sudan, Kenya, Uganda and Djibouti attended the conference. Eritrea was absent although it had been invited, with Xue saying the country was "very supportive of this conference" but was unable to participate "for some technical reason".

Observers noted China's heavy investments in the Horn of Africa region, and said it was taking a long-term approach to its economic development and trade partnerships.

"China knows that its quest for global economic supremacy requires peace and stability in regions where it is heavily invested," Ann Fitz-Gerald, a professor of international security and director of the Balsillie School of International Affairs in Waterloo, Ontario, Canada.

Fitz-Gerald said since China has not been involved in providing direct support to traditional security actors, nor is it associated with a post-colonial experience in Africa, "it will regard itself as a more neutral and non-partisan ' friend' of Ethiopia's - a profile which may work more productively in support of conflict resolution".

"It is true that the complexity of the situation in Ethiopia is historical in nature and requires a deep understanding and well-informed analysis. I suspect that China will see its long-term footprint in the country and the wider Horn of Africa region as providing valuable longitudinal knowledge and perspectives which other external actors may not have," she said.

Chinese envoy Xue Bing speaks as Redwan Hussein, national security adviser to the prime minister of Ethiopia looks on during the Horn of Africa conference. Photo: AFP alt=Chinese envoy Xue Bing speaks as Redwan Hussein, national security adviser to the prime minister of Ethiopia looks on during the Horn of Africa conference. Photo: AFP>

Zhou Yuyuan, a senior research fellow at the Centre for West Asian and African Studies at the Shanghai Institutes for International Studies, said the conference has set the tone for China's engagement in the Horn's security affairs. "The initiative reflects China's strong hope that the region restores peace, which conforms to China's interests. It also reflects China's strong will to contribute, but whether or what extent China can contribute is uncertain," said Zhou.

He said China played a supporting role for regional countries to lead the process, stressing political dialogue. "The possibility lies in that China could use its leverage to invite the regional stakeholders or parties in one country to sit and talk, and may make some proposals to let the parties agree to some points," Zhou said.

Lukas Fiala, coordinator of China Foresight at LSE Ideas, a ­think tank at the London School of Economics, said that China's investments across the region needed protection and that its military base in Djibouti has to some extent made Beijing a stakeholder in regional security issues.

He also said China likely wanted to send a message to Washington and its European allies, demonstrating Beijing's confidence in working with African partners to foster regional stability. Ultimately, however, it will not be China but regional countries - especially the conference host, Ethiopia - that will have the final say in any successful, long-term peace initiative, Fiala said.

While any progress towards constructive dialogue among regional parties is to be welcomed, Fiala said "the reported lack of discussion on specific regional conflicts reflects the complex challenges China will face in bringing lasting stability to the Horn".

"Regional issues will have to be resolved by regional actors. China is probably not going to play a very active role in the actual negotiations, but may help set the table to foster discussions among conflict parties as well as provide economic incentives."

But Benjamin Barton, an assistant professor at the University of Nottingham's Malaysia campus, said: "There is probably growing concern in the halls of power in China regarding instability in the Horn and the risk this creates for the multibillion dollar investments China has pumped into Ethiopia, Djibouti, Kenya, South Sudan, etc."

He said the Horn's security situation has been worsened with the flare-up of violence in Ethiopia while Somalia, Sudan and South Sudan remain haunted by domestic discord.

However, "Chinese diplomatic influence in the Horn still fails to match the leverage which one would expect comes with its economic heft. China has punched below its weight," Barton said.

"To rectify this state of affairs and to ensure something of a greater degree of control over the protection of Chinese entrepreneurs/labourers/investments in the Horn, this possibly explains where Xue is coming from."

However, Barton doesn't anticipate that China will do anything drastically different from its usual prescriptions, which are to call for dialogue among conflicting parties, promote long-term economic development as the optimal solution to quell the rancour and perhaps provide a framework for negotiation for the most burning disputes.

Barton said without Eritrea's blessing and unequivocal commitment to any peace initiative, there's always the chance that Asmara will end up undermining it in some way as it has perfected its role as a spoiler over the years.

Guled Ahmed, a non-resident scholar at the Washington-based Middle East Institute, said the Horn Africa peace initiative championed by Beijing raised China's profile as a mediator and peacemaker on the world stage. Further, "it serves as an alternative Chinese peace model (addressing only lack of development) to replace Western countries' conflict resolution approach (focused more on strong intuition and democratisation), which serves well in authoritarian and less democratic countries with bad human rights records", he said.

Ahmed said the fact that the Eritrean government was missing out on the peace initiative gave relief to the Intergovernmental Authority on Development countries who see it as a disrupter of Horn peace and stability.

"It is also possible that China may have requested the Eritrean government to miss out voluntarily since the Tigray regional government is uninvited so that in the eyes of African countries and the West, China's engagement in Africa conflict resolution is taken seriously rather than a photo-op," Ahmed said.

This article originally appeared in the South China Morning Post (SCMP), the most authoritative voice reporting on China and Asia for more than a century. For more SCMP stories, please explore the SCMP app or visit the SCMP's Facebook and Twitter pages. Copyright © 2022 South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.

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