ISAIAS AFWERKI: Beijing’s oldest friend in the Horn
As the West counters two decades of Chinese influence in the region, what does Beijing’s oldest and most steadfast ally have to offer?
Photo courtesy: Isaias Afewerki Facebook page.In the middle of May, Eritrea’s president Isaias Afwerki visited China. He was warmly received. The visit coincided with the 30th anniversary of diplomatic relations between the two countries. Chinese media indicate President Isaias has visited China a few times, some of which were private visits. He was last there in 2006 for the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation.
Eritrea joined the Belt and Road Initiative in 2021. In the following year, the two countries elevated their ties to a strategic partnership. During this latest visit, Isaias told the Chinese what they wanted to hear, defending China’s loan policy in Africa and supporting a China-led new world order of cooperation. Praise from Isaias was a much-needed tonic. Isolated as he has been, lately Beijing has appeared to be in need of friends on the continent as Washington and Brussels turn up the anti-China propaganda.
A thaw in the regional cold war
Close to a decade of self-imposed regional isolation and Security Council sanctions, appeared to be ending when Isaias made peace with Ethiopia’s PM Abiy Ahmed in 2018. The deal secured Abiy the Nobel, even if Afwerki’s pointed omission suggested he was not yet fully rehabilitated in Western eyes. Eritrea’s role in the conflict in Tigray in which its troops were accused of atrocities, including massacres and rape, triggered another raft of Western sanctions – even as the Abiy regime in Addis Ababa avoided the same fate.
Late last year, however, Kenya’s president, William Ruto’s visit to Asmara revived prospects of a thaw in the region’s diplomatic cold war. In June, Eritrea rejoined IGAD, the eight-member East African body that acts as the region’s peace and security guarantor, after nearly 16 years. In 2007, Asmara had walked out of IGAD, accusing the regional body of taking sides in its long-running border dispute with Ethiopia.
Africa’s North Korea?
Sometimes dubbed the ‘North Korea of Africa’, Asmara’s record of appalling media freedoms, human rights abuses and authoritarianism hardly makes it the ideal candidate for Beijing’s diplomatic offensive. (It’s worth remembering that Beijing is Pyongyang’s biggest friend.)
Eritrea’s strategic location near the Gulf of Aden and Bab el Mandeb is important for maritime security in the region. Its coastline provides China with additional direct access to the Red Sea, a critical maritime route for global trade and shipping. Eritrea’s inclusion in China’s Belt and Road Initiative facilitates infrastructure construction such as ports, railways, and highways. These projects can enhance regional connectivity and promote China’s economic interests by creating trade corridors and improving transportation networks. Eritrea is rich in mineral resources such as potash, copper, and gold which are important for China as a major consumer of natural resources. Diplomatically, having good relations with Eritrea promotes China’s influence in the Horn, where different countries have competing interests. Militarily, if there were problems with Djibouti, China can have an alternative in having access to naval facilities.
Isaias has proved a loyal and steadfast friend. During his long isolation, senior Eritrean officials travelled to China on government business – three of them a total of fifteen times since 2010. Recently, 35 Chinese citizens were evacuated from Sudan through Eritrea, perhaps the only foreigners aided by Asmara. Last August, Eritrea’s foreign ministry condemned former US Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan, stating in a press release:“The latest act is deplorable as it is in contravention of international law; the norms and provisions of State sovereignty; as well as, the ‘One-China’ policy and the process of Chinese reunification.” It was the only African state to come out so unambiguously in China’s defence. The relationship has been reciprocal, if complicated: during the 1998-2000 Eritrea-Ethiopia border war Chinese corporations transferred almost US$1 billion in weapons dispatched to both sides.
Lessons in Peking
Isaias’s visit to China was another mark in a relationship that predates Eritrean independence. According to Idris Glaidos, one of the earliest Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF) leaders was a Djiboutian, Mahmoud Harbi, who introduced the ELF to the Chinese via a memo. Eventually, the ELF established an office in Damascus. Diplomatic relations were also established between China and Syria. As a result, contact was established with their embassy there. Subsequently, Idris Mohamed Adem and Sabbe, leaders of the ELF, visited China in early 1966, requesting military assistance. Chairman Mao Zedong, the then-secretary general of the Chinese Communist Party, and Zhou Enlai, the first premier of the People’s Republic of China, met with the two. During that visit, the Chinese agreed to provide military training for five cadres; thus, the first group was dispatched to China in 1966. Isaias was one of them and is the only of the group still alive. The Chinese even gave them written bylaws for the upcoming Communist Party. Later, China agreed to train another 20 ELF fighters, and the second batch was sent in 1967.
For the 6–8 months the trainees stayed there, they got political training on communism, socialism, and imperialism. They also learned about guerrilla military tactics and how Communists in mainland China won over the Kuomintang, or Nationalist Party of China. They also visited communist bases during the war. Chinese instructors delivered lessons in Arabic and English. The training took place at the Nanking Military Academy. There were several groups from Latin America and Asia taking training simultaneously, but each group was kept separate. As part of their ideological training, they were told that a people’s struggle cannot be won without a vanguard party that leads the struggle. This suggestion seems to have been implemented.
The ELF clandestine party, ‘Labour Party’ was formed in 1968, and the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front’s clandestine party, ‘Eritrean People’s Revolutionary Party’ was formed in 1971. At the Third Congress of the EPLF in 1994, Isaias publicly disclosed that for 20 years until 1989, a Marxist vanguard party, the EPRP had run the struggle; he was saying, in effect, that he had used the clandestine EPRP as his vehicle to power. Contacts between the ELF and the Chinese soon ended following Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie’s visit to China in 1967. In 2008, the American Ambassador in Eritrea quoted the Chinese Ambassador there, in a confidential memo: “Isaias learned all the wrong things in China.”
Asmara’s export surplus with Beijing
Eritrea is classified by the African Development Bank as being in debt distress; its debt-to-GDP ratio stood at 164.7 percent in 2022. According to the China Loans to Africa Database, between 2000 and 2018, Asmara took ten loans in different sectors amounting to $631 million. There was no mention of debt relief or restructuring in the recent talks between the two sides. But during a January 2007 visit to Eritrea, Chinese Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing partially announced the cancellation of Eritrea’s bilateral debt. He also announced that Eritrean exports to China were tariff-free.
Chinese companies have invested in Eritrea’s mining, transportation, and communication sectors. China also offers scholarships to Eritrean students. The Chinese constructed Orotta Hospital, Eritrea’s largest medical facility, and the first fully functional, modern hospital. Over 200 Chinese doctors and health professionals have worked in Eritrea with 15 Chinese medical teams since 1997. China has economic interests in Eritrea, especially in mineral resources such as gold and potash. A Chinese company recently bought a 50% stake in the Colluli potash project in Eritrea. The Colluli potash project is considered one of the world’s most significant and lowest-cost sources of sulphate of potash (SOP), a premium-grade fertilizer with an estimated reserve of 1.1 billion tons. China’s aid to Eritrea is estimated to be $12-18 million annually and is meant to boost exports. There are reports that China may have provided Eritrea with weapons and surveillance equipment. According to the Hong Kong Trade Development Council, China’s loans currently constitute four percent of Eritrea’s debt stock.
According to the Observatory of Economic complexity, during the past 26 years China’s exports to Eritrea have increased at an annualized rate of 14.3%, from $2.15 million in 1995 to $69.9 million in 2021. The main products that China exported to Eritrea are delivery trucks ($8.66 million), rubber tyres ($7.53 million), and motor vehicle parts and accessories ($2.86 million). In May 2023, China exported $23.6 million and imported $45.1 million from Eritrea, resulting in a positive trade balance for Eritrea of $21.4 million. Between May 2022 and May 2023 Chinese exports have decreased by $ 10.4 million (-30.6%) from $34.1 million to $23.6 million, while imports increased by $22.1 million (96.1%) from $23 million to $45.1 million.
While Asmara is resolutely anti-Washington today, this was not always the case. Until the war with Ethiopia (1998-2000), Isaias was among the Clinton administration’s Africa ‘blue-eyed boys’, alongside Meles Zenawi, Yoweri Museveni and Paul Kagame – all seen at the time as dynamic, democratic and reform-minded, despite all having taken power by force of arms.
Some inconvenient truths
In the build-up to Gulf War 2, Isaias recruited the Beltway lobbyists, Greenberg Traurig (at an annualised cost of $600,000) to drum up enthusiasm for a US naval base in Eritrea. Under the slogan ‘Why Not Eritrea?’, Greenberg Traurig – the Eritrea campaign was headed by now disgraced ex-con, the conservative PR star, Jack Abramoff – sought to make the case that as a pro-American half-Christian, half-Muslim nation surrounded by Muslim theocracies, Eritrea was Washington’s best bet in the region. Isaias’ enthusiasm surprised even Djibouti’s Ismail Omar Guelleh, on whose soil the Americans were already constructing Camp Lemonnier, the US Africa Command’s biggest continental base. Despite its problems with democracy – there had been reports at the time of activists being rounded up and jailed – “failure to form an alliance with Eritrea”, Greenberg Traurig intoned, “is unconscionable.” Asmara was counting on a US military base to spur its economic recovery from the border war with Ethiopia, attracting US and other foreign investment interest.
Washington, with priorities seemingly more pressing than the demands of its conscience, rejected the offer.
When Trump took office, Asmara presented a memorandum detailing the injustices done against it by the previous US administration. Its grievances were ignored. Eritrea, currently under US and EU sanctions and lately voting at the UN with Russia and China, considers China a strategic partner that can help it cushion the impact of those sanctions. As Africa’s debt crisis begins to take hold, China, whose two-decade run on the continent made it the dominant great power force at the start of the 21st century narrative, finds its motives under increased scrutiny as much by its erstwhile African partners as by its Western rivals looking to catch up in the continent’s scramble for influence and resources. In Eritrea, however, Beijing has a friend in need.