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A new scramble for Africa? Events in Ethiopia show how America and China are fighting a proxy war for influence on the continent

Tom Fowdy
Tom Fowdy

is a British writer and analyst of politics and international relations with a primary focus on East Asia.

is a British writer and analyst of politics and international relations with a primary focus on East Asia.

A new scramble for Africa? Events in Ethiopia show how America and China are fighting a proxy war for influence on the continent
Washington has long viewed the country as a crucial partner in a key region, but the new sanctions it's just imposed on the Addis Ababa government could backfire and push it closer to Beijing.

It’s been a weekend of extraordinary developments in Washington’s relationship with Ethiopia, which have also been of a contradictory nature. 

On Saturday, the US International Development Finance Corporation (DFC) secured a contract with a consortium of companies to fund the country’s 5G network, on the condition the money isn’t used on Chinese telecoms giants Huawei and ZTE. 

Then the very next day, the State Department imposed sweeping sanctions over Ethiopia’s government and army, as well as cutting international aid, over what it deems as human rights abuses in the Tigray region, where Addis has been fighting a conflict with a rebel regional government. Bloomberg reports that these sanctions may broaden to include blocking IMF and World Bank lending to the country.

The sanctions represent a potential turning point in US-Ethiopian relations, which have soured since the bloody Tigray conflict erupted last November. Thousands have been killed and about two million people forced from their homes, with widespread reports of atrocities, ethnic violence, and alleged war crimes committed against civilian populations.

Washington has long viewed Ethiopia as a critical partner in East Africa, fearing that any destabilization in the region could help Islamic militant groups such as Al-Qaeda and al Shabaab, stoke ethnic tensions, and threaten freedom of movement in the Red Sea

How can one make sense of Washington’s contradictory moves toward the country? President Biden has obviously been under some pressure from Congress to act on the civil war. However, the situation is neatly illustrated by one word: China. 

The US wants to make inroads into Africa to thwart and compete with Beijing’s cosy relationships with many countries on that continent. Washington sees its foreign policy there through the lens of this rivalry; when US Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke with leaders of Nigeria and Kenya recently, he warned African nations to be wary of Beijing.

To try to assert strategic dominance, Washington is turning to its classic modus operandi of simultaneously using sanctions as leverage in order to influence Ethiopia’s foreign policy, while using debt as a means to procure political moves in its favor and to strengthen the private sector, particularly against Beijing. 

The DFC, America’s development bank, is one to watch. Established in 2019, it is an arm of the US government created to try to rival China’s Belt and Road initiative (BRI) in investing in developing countries. However, it has a more explicit political and ideological angle to it than Beijing’s program in that it demands compliance with American strategic preferences in exchange for low interest loans and forced privatizations to the benefit of US firms. 

The BRI utilizes state owned companies to build projects, whilst the DFC pushes the American private sector. As an example, at the beginning of the year the DFC brokered a deal with the neoliberal government in Ecuador: offering to pay off its debt to China in exchange for signing up to the ‘Clean Network’ initiative (which excludes Huawei and ZTE from the country’s 5G network) and privatizing Ecuadorian oil companies to American investors. 

This partially reflects the pattern of lending brokered by Bretton Woods institutions in the 1980s, such as the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, which also leveraged neoliberal economic changes in the 1980s that weakened national economies in Africa but empowered foreign investors in the West. 

It is an interesting contrast, and perhaps an ironic one, from what the US has claimed is “debt trap diplomacy” or “predatory lending” by China. Yet Washington uses conditional loans and sanctions simultaneously with Ethiopia, in a blatant attempt to secure growing leverage over the country. For example, sanctions relief may in time be brokered in exchange for compliance with anti-China objectives, something America has had little luck with in Africa, where many countries have long orientated themselves toward Beijing, not only due to it being a source of easy capital, but because of China’s principle of non-interference. 

This, of course, sets out some of the obstacles ahead for the US in Ethiopia. The sanctions it has imposed will not please Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s government. With its army sanctioned, which countries is Ethiopia going to turn to for arms? And which ones likewise support the idea of “sovereignty”? 

The answers are, of course, China and, to a lesser extent, Russia. This may mean while Ethiopia and other countries can leverage US investment, it may come at an unacceptably high price if it comes with political interference. However, it may also provide a tool for African countries to negotiate more squarely than Beijing. This is a deal the Chinese will watch closely, and they will certainly be concerned about America making new inroads on the African continent.

In this case, foreign policymakers may dub these new developments a new “scramble for Africa” – but that comes with the baggage of denying the agency of African nations themselves in the bid between superpowers to compete for influence. 

Either way though, the US has set out a clear strategy on Ethiopia: Weaken the state (one that is often most favorable to China), strengthen the private sector and subsequently use sanctions to impose its own vision on reshaping this often tumultuous African country. Only time will tell what the results are, and which superpower eventually emerges victorious on the African continent.

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The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.

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