Own ways of doing: national pride, power and China’s political calculus in Ethiopia

Own ways of doing: national pride, power and China’s political calculus in Ethiopia

China’s evolving position as a key economic actor in Africa, a diplomatic heavyweight in local conflict resolution and a new entrant into peacekeeping, security co-operation and capacity building, illustrates significant policy changes with potentially profound implications for the continent.
 
Mostly unencumbered by Western normative agendas and a concomitant need to reconcile these with its commercial interests, the Chinese government (along with Chinese enterprises) had pursued a mercantilist agenda that seemingly only required local elite compliance to succeed. However, as a result of China’s failure to sufficiently grapple with the intricacies of various political contexts, the early blush of success in places such as Sudan quickly devolved into situations of great complexity, potentially threatening the commercial viability of investments, the lives of Chinese citizens and the country’s international reputation.
 
Against this increasingly volatile backdrop, the pressure on China to devise an approach that mitigates these challenges without unnecessarily exposing the country to greater risks in the process, has become a formidable policy imperative. By embracing multilateralism while cautiously expanding its co-operation with and capacity building of African regional initiatives, Beijing hopes to have devised a winning strategy for securing future engagements across the continent and elsewhere. Yet the African terrain remains complex and unfamiliar, forcing China to pragmatically engage with specific contexts and learn by doing. This opens up a space for a broader conversation with other external partners of the continent (at both a national and a multilateral level) to explore avenues of engagement.

In this broader scheme of shifting dynamics, China’s quickly expanding links with Ethiopia offer a contextualised portrait of activities that extend beyond purely economic interests and outcomes. While neither resource rich nor an economic powerhouse at the scale of Nigeria or South Africa, Ethiopia is among the top Chinese foreign direct investment (FDI) and loan recipients in Africa. Given its strategic position within a vast geographical zone of conflicts and its increasingly active role in regional peacekeeping missions, Ethiopia plays an important part in the foreign policies of the EU, the US and, more recently, China.
 
By focusing on peace and security, human security and governance capacity building, this paper explores the nature of political culture and concepts of power in Ethiopia, while examining the ways in which China, as a foreign partner, navigates this complex political landscape (both domestically and regionally) as it seeks to expand both its foothold and bargaining power. The first part unpacks the complexity of domestic politics in Ethiopia, as this provides the basis for the country’s unfolding relationship with China and Chinese actors. The second part outlines the key areas of Chinese economic involvement while critically engaging with the idea of ‘infrastructure for diplomatic support’. The last part looks at China’s political influence, both at a domestic level through regular exchanges with the ruling party and, increasingly, at a regional level via engagements with the AU and other regional institutions.
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