Ethiopia: A U.S – China Battleground in Africa?

Ethiopia as a battleground for U.S - China domination of Africa
While the story of China’s economic and political penetration of Africa has been told and retold countless times by many analysts, very few express the issue in terms of move and counter-move between the US and China.

By Eric Draitser,

Earlier this month, the Washington Post confirmed that the US military had closed its drone base in Arba Minch, in Southern Ethiopia. While there was at least some mention of the closure in the corporate media, none of the coverage provided the much needed geopolitical and strategic context necessary to understand the true significance of the shuttering of the US base. Instead, most of the coverage focused on the redeployment of US assets to other parts of Africa, or indeed beyond the African continent. 

However, the real story has gone completely untold. And what exactly is “the real story” one might ask? In a nutshell, the closure of the US base is merely the latest chapter in an ongoing geopolitical chess match between the US and China, one which has seen Africa become by far the most hotly contested ground.

But this is precisely how the issue must be framed and, seen in that light, it is entirely reasonable to interpret the US move to close its Ethiopian drone base as motivated less by tactical and military needs than by political considerations.

China and Ethiopia: A Blossoming Partnership

As China has expanded its African footprint, Ethiopia has grown increasingly significant from Beijing’s perspective. Seen as a source of both cheap exports and massive investment potential, Ethiopia now figures centrally in China’s plans for the Horn of Africa, and for the continent generally. Indeed, the statistics show just how important Ethiopia has become.

According to the World Bank, Ethiopia is the world’s fastest growing economy as measured by GDP. While it should be noted that GDP is not a measure of actual economic improvement for the majority of citizens who still live in the most abject poverty, by and large it does indicate the growth of the economy as a whole. And it is precisely that GDP growth (2014-2017 GDP compounded annual growth rate of +9.70%), and potential for future growth, that has lured Chinese investors and the Chinese state.

As David Shinn, former US Ambassador to Ethiopia noted in April 2015:

Chinese influence in Ethiopia today is equal to or rivals that of any other country, including the United States… The leadership of the ruling EPRDF [Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front] certainly gives the impression that it is more comfortable with the style and leadership of the Communist Party of China (CPC) than with the leadership and ruling parties of Western countries, including the US. The EPRDF and the CPC frequently exchange visits and have even formalised their interaction. While the EPRDF has on-going relationships with a few Western political parties, it is doubtful they are as close as they are with the CPC… At the political level, China and Ethiopia have been supportive of each other. The Ethiopian Parliament passed a resolution in support of China’s Anti-Secession Law. Ethiopia has joined other African countries in stopping resolutions in the UN Human Rights Commission that censor China’s human rights practices. Former prime minister [sic] Meles Zenawi stated emphatically that Tibet is an internal affair and outsiders have no right to interfere… Increasingly, Ethiopia sees China as an alternative to the West and, especially, Western political conditionality [emphasis added].

That last sentence is particularly revealing as it neatly encapsulates the major development in the Horn of Africa over the last decade where the once reliable US-client state in Ethiopia has now become increasingly contested. When Chinese Prime Minister Li Keqiang visited Ethiopia in 2014 he brought with him a veritable coterie of business leaders and government ministers prepared to sign a host of partnership deals, 16 to be exact. These deals included massive cooperative infrastructure and development deals, including for the construction of roads and industrial zones.

In fact, according to the Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute, China’s total investment in Ethiopia is nearly $17 billion, with the bulk of the investments in the transportation/infrastructure, energy, and technology sectors. Such large-scale investment in critical economic sectors illustrates precisely why China is seen as a necessary and vital economic and political (soon military?) counterweight to US hegemony on the Horn of Africa. For example, some of the most high-profile projects in Ethiopia are Chinese funded and built: the $475 million Addis Ababa Light Rail Project (AALRT), the $583 million Baro Akobo Dam, the $200 million African Union headquarters, among many others.

But beyond the already materialized joint projects, the Chinese are also mapping out their long-term economic engagement in Ethiopia, having now defined the country as one of its “Economic Cooperation Zones” on the African continent. As world renowned expert on Chinese investment in Africa, Deborah Brautigam (American University), along with her colleague Tang Xiaoyang (New School for Social Research) noted in their critical 2011 study African Shenzhen: China’s special economic zones in Africa:

From all accounts, the Chinese government has taken a ‘hands off’ attitude towards African policies on these zones. We could find no evidence or even rumours of conditionalities or quid-pro-quos imposed on host governments by the Chinese government in return for the development of the zones. While the Chinese government played a role at the diplomatic level and in visits by Chinese leaders to some (but not all) of the countries hosting zones, our interviews make it clear that Chinese companies, with the support of their local embassy, took the lead in negotiations with host governments over particular incentives and responsibilities, particularly for infrastructure construction….Because these pilot zones are also important politically for the Chinese government and for the African hosts, some of them, as in Ethiopia, have bilateral coordination committees that include official representatives of both governments and operate at the strategic policy level. (P. 35, 37)

The above excerpt demonstrates two absolutely essential elements of the China-Ethiopia relationship, and indeed China’s partnership with African nations generally. First and foremost is the fact that, as Brautigam and Xiaoyang note, Beijing imposes no conditionalities on Ethiopia, or any African government partnering with China for a “Special Economic Zone.” This is in stark contrast to the US and EU which, quite often through the vehicle of the World Bank and/or International Monetary Fund (IMF), make aid and investment conditional upon certain criteria dictated by the US or EU themselves. The history of “aid” to Africa from the West is long and sordid, and there’s little doubt that African governments appreciate that China offers a substantively different economic model.

Secondly, the fact that there is a bilateral coordination committee including representatives of both the Chinese and Ethiopian governments illustrates the simple point that Ethiopia clearly sees China as a long-term partner rather than a short-term investor. Indeed, this flies in the face of the conventional wisdom that Ethiopia is what it has been for the past three decades, a client and proxy of the US. With such levels of cooperation, it is apparent for all with eyes to see that Ethiopia is increasingly looking east for economic development. This growing Sino-Ethiopian partnership provides a very different sort of prism through which to evaluate military moves in the region.

China, the US, and the Shuffling of the Military Chessboard

And so, the closure of the US drone base at Arba Minch is no mere military move, though military considerations obviously played a role in the decision to close the base. Rather, the US is reducing its military presence in a country that it recognizes is no longer its proxy. But the question remains: was the closure due to practical considerations (logistics, mission objectives, budget, etc.) or was it because Washington no longer has the backing of the Ethiopian Government?

Consider the statements of Master Sgt. James Fisher who, upon the official announcement of the Arba Minch drone facility becoming operational in 2011, succinctly stated that “[the drone flights] will continue as long as the government of Ethi­o­pia welcomes our cooperation on these varied security programs.” And so, four years and tens of millions of dollars later, the US has closed the base. Why? One logical conclusion based on the available evidence is that Addis Ababa decided that its growing partnerships with China outweighed the need to cooperate with the US in terms of military basing rights. It would not be the first time in recent history that a country has shifted out of the US orbit as it tries to enhance cooperation with China.

And here it is necessary to note another geopolitically critical development in recent months: the announcement by Beijing that it will be opening its first overseas military installation in the small coastal nation of Djibouti, situated in the strategically vital Bab-el-Mandeb Strait which separates the Red Sea from the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean. Ensuring access to this global chokepoint is essential to China’s development as much of its trade, including the all-important African exports, travels through this narrow waterway. With a naval facility in Djibouti, Beijing will be well-positioned to project its power and ensure unfettered access to the African continent and Indian Ocean, irrespective of US plans.

But of course, the US is not simply throwing in the towel when it comes to Djibouti or the Horn of Africa. It is no secret that the US base at Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti is one of the most important facilities the US maintains anywhere in the world, despite the rhetoric about the US having a “small footprint” in Africa. As Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter described it, Camp Lemonnier is “a hub with lots of spokes out there on the continent and in the region.” As if to underscore the Defense Secretary’s point, former AFRICOM Commander Carter Ham explained in 2012 that “Camp Lemonnier is … an essential regional power projection base that enables the operations of multiple combatant commands…The requirements for Camp Lemonnier as a key location for national security and power projection are enduring.”

Investigative reporter Nick Turse further noted that “[US] drone operations were moved from [Camp Lemonnier] to the more remote Chabelley Airfield.” Essentially, while China makes a move into Djibouti, the US has been quietly reshuffling its assets in the Horn of Africa in an attempt to counter what it perceives as increasing encroachment by China into the US sphere of influence.

Even offshore this China-US chess match is taking shape. Hundreds of miles off the African coast, the island nation of Seychelles is also a theater of competition between the US and China. In 2011, news broke that there was a proposal from the Seychelles’ government to provide rights to Chinese naval vessels for refueling and resupplying. While the offer was seen as very much preliminary, it highlighted the growing competition between the two powers, particularly since that same year WikiLeaks cables revealed Seychelles was being used by the US to conduct counterterrorism drone operations in Somalia. As the Washington Post reported, Seychelles “has hosted a small fleet of MQ-9 Reaper drones operated by the U.S. Navy and Air Force since September 2009…classified U.S. diplomatic cables show that the unmanned aircraft have also conducted counterterrorism missions over Somalia, about 800 miles to the northwest.”

Just as it has recently done in Djibouti, it seems that China has eyed challenging US military hegemony in key countries in and around the Horn of Africa, including offshore. But while Djibouti and Seychelles represent very small countries whose primary importance is their strategic location, Ethiopia represents a major economic prize for Beijing. Such is the changing nature of Chinese engagement in Africa.

The real question geopolitical observers are now asking themselves is not whether or not China will challenge the US for military positioning, but how quickly will it do so? Ethiopia undeniably represents a major nexus for China, at once an economic opportunity and a strategic necessity. Washington’s closure of its lone Ethiopian base might just be evidence that the Ethiopian Government recognizes this as well.