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Sun, January 9, 2022, 1:30 AM·5 min read
China's pledge to appoint a Horn of Africa peace envoy has been interpreted by some regional observers as an "official" move away from its traditional position of non-intervention in other countries' affairs and a sign of its growing confidence on the international stage.
Foreign Minister Wang Yi also called for a regional peace conference during his visit to Kenya last week, in which he praised the region's "unique strategic position and great development potential".
But the region - home to Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Somalia, South Sudan, and Sudan - has witnessed civil wars, Islamist insurgencies, and military coups that had threatened investments into the region.
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China promotes peace conference for Horn of Africa nations
Analysts also point to the vast investments Chinese companies have made across the region, including key infrastructure such as ports and railways, as another reason for its intervention.
Seifudein Adem, a professor of global studies at Doshisha University in Kyoto, Japan, said the appointment of an envoy shows China has realised the geo-strategic value of the Horn of Africa and is ready to "officially and openly" put aside its "principle of non-interference" when its interests dictate.
More significantly, "it reflects China's growing confidence as the rising global power that is willing and able to provide global public goods through, among other things, the mediation of conflicts in distant lands", Adem said.
"China, in effect, is presenting itself for the first time as an alternative mediator of a conflict [in Ethiopia] which the US has been actively trying to mediate, unsuccessfully so far."
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Yu-Shan Wu, a postdoctoral research fellow at the National Institute for the Humanities and Social Sciences at the University of Pretoria in South Africa, said the special envoy will allow China to "better support and coordinate with African multilateral (African Union) peace and security efforts".
"Appointment of an envoy will also help better inform China's position on particular issues such as the complexities in Somalia and civil war in Ethiopia," Wu added.
Aaron Tesfaye, a professor of political science at William Paterson University, Wayne, New Jersey, said the new politics of the Horn of Africa-the shaky transition in Sudan, the change of government and civil war in Ethiopia, and the ongoing armed conflict in Somalia-has created opportunities for China.
He said Wang's visit "underlines China is now a big player in the region especially in the Red Sea".
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi visited Kenya and Eritrea last week. Photo: AFP alt=Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi visited Kenya and Eritrea last week. Photo: AFP>
China has funded a US$4.5 billion rail link to Djibouti in Ethiopia and is making inroads in Eritrea, which joined the Belt and Road Initiative in November and may start seeing Chinese money flow to develop its ports and rail networks.
Troops from both countries have been fighting rebels in Ethiopia's Tigray province, and the US has sanctioned unnamed leaders in both Ethiopia and Eritrea as well as removing the former from the US African Growth Opportunity Act, a free-trade deal, for violating its principles.
Wang condemned the sanctions when visiting Eritrea last week and Tesfaye said the leaders of the two countries appeared to be asserting their "independence" from the US and had virtually ignored Washington's peace initiatives.
"One should see Wang's recent visit as an affirmation that China is very much interested in deepening its 'South-South' political, economic, and military relations with the nations, who are key players, along with the Gulf States, and critical to China's Maritime Silk Road and security in the Red Sea littoral," he said.
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The long-term interests of Chinese investor companies, Chinese-built projects and continued stable trade and investment relations depend on long-term peace and security in the region, according to Yunnan Chen, a senior research officer at the London-based Overseas Development Institute think tank.
She said the conflicts put Chinese citizens and workers on the ground at risk, as well as the sustainability of the major infrastructure projects that are now considered part of the Belt and Road Initiative.
"These economic interests and the importance of the region in China's maritime BRI, naturally, give China a rational interest in the region's enduring peace and security," Chen said.
"It's also an area where China can demonstrate that it's playing a benevolent role as a global power in the region."
Lina Benabdallah, a specialist in China-Africa relations at Wake Forest University in North Carolina, said Beijing recognises that the "absence of peace might stall investment possibilities and could lead to bigger insecurity scenarios that Beijing does not view as favourable to its role, image and interest in the region".
China's desire to be seen as a great power was always going to lead to a more substantive role in the region's security, according to W Gyude Moore, a senior policy fellow with the Centre for Global Development and a former Liberian public works minister.
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He cited China's first overseas naval base in Djibouti, which was initially set up in support of its anti-piracy operations along a busy trade route.
"One can see a similar dynamic here of China both safeguarding its investment in the region and contributing to regional security," Moore 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.
Copyright (c) 2022. South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.
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