Redeeming Ethiopia-U.S. relations as the world heads towards great power rivalry: a snapshot

This month, two of the world’s leading economies, the US and China, unveiled their strategic political plans that highlight their perspective for the coming decade, and the ways they plan to outcompete the other. Given the National Security Strategy of the US, the world is now at an ‘inflection point.’ If the US fails to manage the competition, it faces from China and redress the threat coming from Russia, its “window of opportunity to shape the future of international order and tackle shared [global] challenges will close.”  China took on a similar tone in its statement, reflected in Xi Jinping’s speech at the opening session of the 20th national congress of the Communist Party of China. As Officially disclosed by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of China, the congress is convened “at a critical time as the entire party and the Chinese people … embark on a new journey to build China … and advance toward the Second Centenary Goal”. In the coming decade, China plans further modernization of its economy in order to escape the middle income trap. The polemics in the the two powerhouses inevitably implies that the decade will indeed be difficult to navigate for countries of the world, including Ethiopia.

This short article uncovers the major points of the two documents and provides their thematic focus in the changing geopolitics of the world. This is especially important, first, to help us understand the type of global order that is emerging and, second, to sort out the possible areas of cooperation between Ethiopia and the US in the coming decade. The two documents under scrutiny are the 2022 US National Security Strategy document and President Xi Jinping Speeches delivered to congress at the 20th National Congress of the Communist Party of China on behalf of the 19th CPC Central Committee in October 2022 as adopted by their respective governments.

Africa’s Centers for Disease Control facility under construction with support from China in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia 2022.

As far as US national security strategy is concerned, it has faced with two strategic threats whereby the first is related with its superpower position and the other is related with the problems that are affecting the entire world.  The first strategic threat emanates from those states that are practicing ‘authoritarian governance’ and ‘revisionist foreign policy to challenge the ‘rule-based international order.’ The order in place, in the view of the US, has been serving the interests of the American public best and should not be challenged by any other state. However, the order is challenged primarily by China and Russia and also by other ‘smaller autocracies’ like Iran and DPRK (Korea).  The strategy clearly indicates that:

Russia and PRC pose different challenges. Russia poses an immediate threat to the free and open international system, recklessly flouting the basic tenets of the international order today, as its brutal war of aggression against Ukraine has shown. The PRC, by contrast, is the only competitor with both the intent to reshape the international order and, increasingly, the economic, diplomatic, military, and technological power to advance that objective. (p. 8)

As the world is entering a new era of great power competition, the second strategic threat for the US is a shared threat across the world though America wants to assume a leading role in confronting it. This is a set of problems under the umbrella of ‘shared threats’, which includes climate, energy, health, economy, and food supply-related problems.   

Semi-conductor supremacy and high tech competition threatens to subdivide the world into blocks; those reliant on American or Chinese technology. This has implications for Africa’s relationship with both countries.

On the other side of the pole, China is giving a strategic focus to security affairs in the coming five years, and “more quickly elevating people’s armed forces to world-class standards are strategic tasks for building a modern socialist country in all respects.” There is also a plan “to strengthen all-round military governance, consolidate and enhance integrated national strategies and strategic capabilities.” This helps China to unify Taiwan either through ‘peaceful reunification’ or ‘the options of taking all measures necessary. This happens especially after China believes it achieved its first centenary goal of eradicating poverty and building a ‘moderately prosperous society. The remaining task is going through the tough journey of ‘national rejuvenation which includes building a modern and unified China with many standards.

The world is now at the crossroad of geopolitical competition between the US and China. The US is reiterating its interest in maintaining the global status quo by assuring its leadership by outcompeting China. It also points to the Indo-Pacific region as the major theatre of geopolitical competition.  China, on the other hand, is readying itself for the use of all necessary measures to unify Taiwan to mainland China. This is a worrisome development for the people of the world to be exposed for the competition of great power nations. There is a looming cold-war type of global threat though America promises for a “greater strategic stability through measures that reduce the risk of unintended military escalation, enhance crisis communication, build mutual transparency, and ultimately engage Beijing on more formal arms control efforts.”

America identified three sets of activities to deal with the identified threats. These activities are intended to be victorious in the competition against China, in dealing with the imminent threat posed by Russia as well as in confronting shared global challenges. The first focus goes to the sources of American strength, i.e. boosting the science and technology capability of the country and strengthening their democracy.

The second list of activity is related with establishing and making use of bilateral and multilateral collaboration with states and regional arrangements that have firm stand as far the status quo is concerned. Democracy is no more relevant factor for engagement rather those states that ‘depend on a rules-based international system’ are best candidate for cordiality. In fact, any state with a revisionist foreign policy may be framed as a bandwagon to China and Russia.

Building a defense force that backs American diplomacy and deters any threat is the third set of activity. But, America is thinking beyond diplomacy and deterrence since the use of force is not omitted along the continuum in the vision of building a strong defense. The strategic document further pinpointed spatial application of these activities around the world.  

In the history of US foreign policy, it is common to observe a similar pattern in threat identification and dealing with the identified threat. The post-WWII US foreign policy was dominated by the fight against socialism by identifying Soviet Russia as a prime promoter of the socialist ideology and authoritarian governance across the world. A decade after the end of cold-war, US foreign policy decision makers spearheaded towards other type of threat in the other part of the world, i.e. terrorism. The ‘either with us or against us’ approach simply refers to the focus of attention towards a specific problem and a specific target. The same pattern is being replicated now by targeting China.            

President Biden’s first meeting with his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jingping

It is therefore plausible to expect an increasing geopolitical rivalry between China and US since both of them are viewing the coming decade an essential temporal age to determine their position in the global order.  Even though it is difficult to clearly portray the type of the rivalry to come between the great powers, it will incur adverse effect for countries like Ethiopia.  Hence, Ethiopia has to identify the potential areas collaboration with the US in fact without overlooking its tradition of neutrality in foreign policy orientation.  This is especially important in an age of tightened diplomatic relations between the two nations. As the Tigray war is waning and a new chapter of diplomatic engagement is dawning, it is wise to identify common interests and capitalize on that.      

Following the strategic goals that US aspires to achieve and the major actions that it wants to pursue, here are some areas that Ethiopia could work together with the US:

  1. Joining the club that is in favor of the rules-based international order

America believes that most states of the world “want a stable and open rules-based order that respects their sovereignty and territorial integrity, provides a fair means of economic exchange with others and promotes shared prosperity, and enables cooperation on shared challenges. They strongly disapprove of aggression, coercion, and external interference” (18) Whether such states are democratic or not, America is ready to work with them. The entire history of Ethiopia’s foreign relation proved that non-intervention in the internal affairs of another state, peaceful settlement of disputes and opposition to aggression are ironclad principles. Ethiopia is also the founding member of the United Nations and have firm belief in the principles and values of the Organization.  It seems there is no difference between Ethiopia and US in working under the UN system and being in favor of the rules-based international order.

  • Working together towards a prosperous world

If indeed America has genuine intentions to bolster “to work with allies and partners on economic development and the expansion of human rights”, then there is significant overlap with Ethiopian interests. The country has great potential for growth and support coming from the developed nations can play a critical role in the path towards democracy and development. The stated interest of US to help build a prosperous world can be another area of cooperation between the two nations. 

  • Accompanying the struggle against food insecurity            

Ethiopia is also the victim of surging food prices and shortages in food supply, similar with other nations across the world. It is also the largest recipient of food aid and humanitarian assistance. The good thing is that the government of Ethiopia has begun giving policy support and adequate leadership for agricultural productivity recently. In short order, the country is emerging as a major wheat producer. The potential for agriculture and agribusiness in Ethiopia is immense given its relatively fertile landmass and available water resources. U.S partnership in the area of food production and distribution could help Ethiopia become a net food exporter the greater Horn of Africa.

  • Fighting terrorism together  

The U.S has supported counter terrorism efforts in Ethiopia for over two decades. This experience should allow for greater security cooperation between the two states in a troubled Horn of Africa region.

  • Strengthening democratic governance  

America has an interest in “deepening partnerships with countries that make progress toward more open and democratic governance” (p.43) At the same time, Ethiopia is trying to get rid of the last vestiges of authoritarianism and embracing political reforms in the move towards democracy. Despite the armed insurgency in the north, the country recently completed its most open and free election in its history. U.S support now will be critical in cementing and consolidating democratic governance.    

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