Why China is taking a low profile on Ethiopia’s Tigray conflict

  • Hundreds of Chinese workers had to flee the northern Ethiopian region after war erupted in November
  • Washington responded to the violence with sanctions but Beijing has had a more muted approach
Protesters hold the portraits of Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin at a rally in Addis Ababa on May 30 against US sanctions over the conflict in Tigray. Photo: AFP

The message from the more than 10,000 Ethiopians who took to the streets of Addis Ababa last week was clear.

Holding anti-US placards, they protested against Washington’s sanctions on government and army officials over the war in Tigray, a conflict in the north of the country that has claimed thousands of lives and displaced more than 2 million people.

Many others held banners applauding the leaders of Russia and China, sending a message to the US that Ethiopia had other powerful friends.

Washington has been a key Ethiopian ally over the years but both China and Russia have a strong presence in the region.

China is a big investor in Ethiopia, channelling US$13.7 billion to Addis Ababa between 2000 and 2019, according to the China Africa Research Initiative at Johns Hopkins University.

So far, Beijing has opted to remain in the background, with cause to tread carefully in a country where many interests intersect.

What is behind the fighting in Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region?

China is a big investor in Ethiopia, channelling US$13.7 billion to Addis Ababa between 2000 and 2019, according to the China Africa Research Initiative at Johns Hopkins University.

So far, Beijing has opted to remain in the background, with cause to tread carefully in a country where many interests intersect.

Tigray is Ethiopia’s northernmost region and home to an estimated 6 million of the country’s 100 million people.

In November, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed sent troops to the region, launching an offensive against a rebel faction of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, or TPLF, a leftist political party, for attacking an Ethiopian army base there.

The US responded to the military action by imposing visa and economic sanctions on Ethiopia, moves that could block funds from the International Monetary Fund and World Bank.

However, China’s approach was much more low profile, saying in February that it supported “the Ethiopian government’s effort in providing help and assistance to people in Tigray and restoring local life and production”.

Seifudein Adem, a professor of global studies at Doshisha University in Kyoto, Japan, said China was reluctant to play a more prominent role in the attempts to resolve the Tigray conflict, in part because of its policy of non-interference in the internal affairs of other countries.

“But one can reasonably say that China, too, interferes even if its interference takes more subtle forms and the effect sometimes takes a long time to mature. The principle of non-interference is, in fact, beginning to be seen, at least occasionally, as less sacrosanct even by Africans,” said Adem, an Ethiopian citizen.

Another reason, Adem said, was related to the huge gap in historical knowledge in China compared with the West about sociopolitical dynamics in the multi-ethnic settings of African societies, including Ethiopia.

“As a fairly homogeneous society with about 97 per cent ethnic Chinese, China’s own experience is also of little relevance to Ethiopia’s predicament,” Adem said.

“But we can be certain that China’s natural impulse towards interference would become generally stronger rather than weaker as its power and interest expand in Africa and elsewhere; it will also be more open about it.”

Samuel Ramani, a University of ­Oxford tutor in politics and international relations, said China’s approach to the Tigray conflict was much more cautious and neutral than US policy.

Ramani said China was notably quiet about the Tigray conflict after it erupted but clarified its position in February, supporting the Ethiopian government’s efforts to improve Tigray’s humanitarian situation and calling for greater humanitarian help to the region.

“This clearly contrasted with the US sanctions on Ethiopia, which implied culpability, and is a nuanced stance which aligns firmly with its policy of non-interference in the internal affairs of states,” he said, adding that Beijing would prefer a resolution to be mediated by the African Union and the parties themselves.


Ethiopians flee to Sudan to escape escalating conflict in Tigray region

China’s usual policy in controversial conflicts like this is to stay “as far removed from them as possible”, according to David Shinn, a former US ambassador to Ethiopia and a professor at George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs.
“This is a particularly difficult one for China, which had close relations with the TPLF and is trying to establish strong ties with the Abiy Ahmed government now that the TPLF has been removed from power,” Shinn said.

Russia, which is Africa’s supplier of military weapons, has also adopted a China-like approach towards the Tigray war, which is: “Don’t get involved and don’t take sides. Just call for peace”, said Shinn.

Addis Ababa is also tipped to host the 2022 Russia-Africa Summit.

Ramani said that in March, Russia played a key role in blocking a unanimous UN statement about the violence in Tigray, as it felt that such a resolution would breach its commitment to non-interference in the internal affairs of states.

“Ethiopia’s potential hosting of the 2022 Russia-Africa Summit and growing importance to Moscow’s Red Sea strategy increases the likelihood of Russia adhering closely to Ethiopia’s official position on Tigray,” Ramani said.

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