KIBII: Eritrean president's Beijing visit exposes US-China bitter rivalry

The tour came on the 30th anniversary of the two countries' diplomatic relations.

In Summary
  • President Xi pledged to advance China’s strategic partnership with Eritrea and applauded  the country’s firm adherence to an independent foreign policy.  
  • Prior to the meeting with Xi, Afwerki and his delegation met with Prime Minister Li Qiang at the Great Hall of People.   
Chinese President Xi Jinping and his American counterpart Joe Biden and on the eve of the G20 Summit in Bali, Indonesia.
BILATERAL TIES: Chinese President Xi Jinping and his American counterpart Joe Biden and on the eve of the G20 Summit in Bali, Indonesia.

The rivalry between the US and China is once again playing out in the Horn of Africa region.  

Eritrea President Isaias Afwerki was in Beijing for a state visit, during which China President Xi Jinping called out unilateral sanctions and external interference in Eritrea’s internal affairs, bringing to the fore the rivalry with the US in the Horn of Africa region. 

President Xi pledged to advance China’s strategic partnership with Eritrea and applauded  the country’s firm adherence to an independent foreign policy.  

On the invitation of President Xi, President Afwerki was on a four-day official visit to China.  He was accompanied by the ministers of Foreign Affairs, Finance and National Development, as well as Trade and Industry.  

President Xi said China will enhance its bilateral cooperation in infrastructure, telecommunications, agriculture, mining and fisheries, among others, as well as investment.  

“Consultative mechanism will be established to expedite implementation of all-rounded cooperation,” he said.  

The two leaders also spoke about enhancement of strategic bilateral ties and regional matters.  

The visit came on the 30th anniversary of their diplomatic relations. 

President Afwerki, on his part, said the world is embarking on a new international order whose hallmarks are prevalence of justice and mutual respect between peoples and nations.  

Prior to the meeting with Xi, Afwerki and his delegation met with Prime Minister Li Qiang at the Great Hall of People.   

PM Qiang said bilateral ties between the two countries have transcended normative diplomatic ties to constitute strategic relationship and tangible cooperation.  

Last year, President Xi and President Afwerki elevated the China-Eritrea relationship to a strategic partnership, injecting new and strong impetus into the two countries’ efforts to deepen cooperation in various fields.   

PM Qiang said China will work with Eritrea to continuously enrich the China-Eritrea strategic partnership, enhance the strategic nature and sustainability of bilateral cooperation and achieve win-win development.  

Even as Eritrea continues to hurt due to the harsh economic sanctions by the US and the West, China said it will continue to provide assistance for Asmara's economic and social development to the best of its ability.   

Both sides further agreed to coordinate and cooperate more closely in regional and international affairs, and implement the nine programmes under the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation and the Outlook on Peace and Development in the Horn of Africa.   

And what seemed as directed to the US, the two sides said they would uphold true multilateralism, firmly oppose hegemony and bullying, defend the common interests of China, Eritrea and other developing countries, and safeguard world peace and development as well as international fairness and justice.  

The US accuses Eritrea of detaining political dissidents and prisoners of conscience, including religious minorities, the closure of the independent press, limits on civil liberties, violations of religious freedom and reports of human rights abuses, which have strained their diplomatic relations.  

There was a brief warming of the ties in July 2018 following the rapprochement between Eritrea and Ethiopia.  However, Eritrea’s military involvement in Ethiopia in November 2020, which the US said was marked by serious, documented human rights abuses, ended the near-term prospect of improving relations.   

Consequently, the US imposed fresh sanctions on certain persons with respect to the humanitarian and human rights crisis in Ethiopia against Eritrean entities and individuals perpetuating the conflict.  

The US also accuses Afwerki of undermining democracy as national elections have not taken place since 1991 and the constitution has not been implemented.   

Regionally, the US accuses Eritrea of contributing to border disputes with Ethiopia in 1998 and Djibouti in 2008, though in 2018 Ethiopia and Eritrea formally made peace. In November 2020 Eritrean forces entered northern Ethiopia in support of the Ethiopian government’s military campaign against Tigray regional authorities.  

The US says interests in Eritrea include preventing Eritrea from undermining regional stability, urging progress toward a democratic political culture, addressing human rights issues including religious freedom, and promoting economic reform and prosperity.  

It is this push that Eritrea sees as interference in domestic politics, and which China has capitalised on to win Asmara's friendship.  

While the US sees Eritrea as a regional destabiliser, President Xi on Monday said strong China-Eritrea relations were key to bolstering peace in the Horn of Africa region.  

"A strong China-Eritrea relationship is not only in line with the common and long-term interests of both countries, but also for maintaining regional peace," Xi said.  

China has intensified its focus and interest in the Horn of Africa in recent years.  

In February last year, China appointed Ambassador Xue Bing as the first special envoy to the Horn of Africa. Xue said being the first time China is appointing a special envoy to the region, it is a demonstration of the seriousness with which the country’s Foreign Affairs ministry takes the region.  

“The Horn of Africa region is home to countries that have traditional relations with China. We are strategic partners. This area is strategically located and abundant in resources. The potential of development is huge," he said. 

“At the same time, there are issues of peace and security like differences over boundaries, ethnic and religious conflicts. So, peace and security are important and that is why China put forward the dialogue of peace and development to provide a platform for countries to come together to settle their differences through consultations and negotiations.” 

It is during the visit that China announced its first peace conference in the first half of the year.  

Ambassador Xue also attacked the West, saying Horn of Africa countries are fed up with western countries’ interference.  

The envoy said the Horn of Africa has suffered from external interventions from western countries for long.  

“Some countries in this area [the Horn of Africa] are fed up with the foreign intervention, the preaching from Western countries. They say China respects us, treats us as equals and so they want to see China playing more active and constructive role,” he said.  

His appointment as envoy followed the exact move by the US. Other countries such as Japan and Switzerland have appointed a special envoy to the region.  

Beyond competition for influence in the region, Eritrea is strategically located and has strategic importance for China given its location on the Red Sea, one of the world's key shipping corridors with access to both the Suez Canal and Europe to the north and the Indian Ocean to the southeast.  

Dr Adhere Cavince, an international relations analyst, argues that Eritrea presents many opportunities for China. 

"The country’s geostrategic location makes it an important gateway to Africa, the Middle East and Europe. It can help China enter these markets besides gaining access to the world’s most important trade routes. Eritrea is also home to natural resources such as gold, copper, zinc, and potash whose successful exploitation can spawn industries and create wealth for both countries," Cavince says.  

He says that Eritrea has been a victim of long-standing hostility from the US, which has placed crippling sanctions on its economy.  

"The US sees the deepening relations between Beijing and Asmara as antithetical to its foreign policy pursuits in the Horn of Africa. US officials fear that by Eritrea strategically aligning with China, it could deny America access to a large part of the most valuable shipping route in the world and increase China’s foothold in the Horn of Africa.," he says.  

He also opines that China also presents many opportunities for Eritrea’s socioeconomic transformation.  

"For the last 25 years, China-Eritrea health cooperation has produced commendable results. China helped Eritrea to put up the largest and modern hospital. Similarly, 15 Chinese medical teams have worked alongside Eritrean counterparts since 1997; providing quality care to the population while jointly building stronger national health systems." 

On agriculture, the partnership has resulted integration of Chinese agricultural technologies, knowledge and crop varieties into the Eritrea’s food systems. This has consequently strengthened Asmara’s efforts to foster food and nutrition security which are important components of poverty alleviation.   

" The partnership has also led to infrastructure upgrades particularly in the special economic zones between Massawa and Assab harbours. Chinese companies have also invested Eritrea’s mining, transportation and communication sectors," Cavince observes.   

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