Beijing is sending its Special Envoy for the Horn of Africa to countries in the region, with a promise to help reach lasting peace, via economic development, while leaving local political settings unaffected.
Mr Xue Bing, once China’s senior diplomat in Nairobi, is returning to the Horn of Africa with an in-tray to try out China’s own mediation, having toured the world including Papua New Guinea where he was ambassador until last year.
The trip that will take him to Eritrea and Kenya* will be the first time in the Horn since taking up the appointment in January. But it targets long-term regional peace, stability, security and development, according to a briefing by China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
“The Horn of Africa sits on an important location, with a large population and huge development potential. Regional peace and stability are of great significance to the peace, stability, development and prosperity of the entire Africa,” Mr Xue told Chinese state-owned Global Times this week ahead of the trip to Nairobi via Asmara and Addis Ababa.
“The main purpose is to support regional countries in coping with the triple challenges of security, development and governance through independent approaches, and to achieve long-term stability and development and prosperity.
”The Horn of Africa has become attractive to global powers, however. Mr Xue’s appointment is just part of a growing list of special envoys for the Horn.
The UN recently named Hannah Teteh the Under Secretary-General and Special Representative of the Secretary-General to the African Union. She will also be the head of the UN to the African Union.
Others are former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo, for the AU, David Satterfield for the US and Annette Weber, the EU Special Representative for the Red Sea and the Horn of Africa.
Most of these appointments are meant to help recent security problems including Somalia’s battle with al-Shabaab, Ethiopia’s unresolved Tigray conflict and Sudan’s post-coup chaos.
While some Western critics have declared some of the conflicts in the region as a product of poor leadership, Beijing thinks they are just a hurdle in development and could be eliminated once leaders choose to work towards integration, according to a document publicised by Beijing.
Beijing sees border disputes, as well, between Sudan and Ethiopia, Somalia and Kenya and Djibouti and Eritrea, as further hindrances to the region’s growth.
“Some Western media outlets tend to look at things from the perspective of geopolitics and major power games. But this is not China's intention,” argued Mr Xue.
“Africa is not an arena for major power games, and external forces arbitrarily interfering in regional affairs and the internal affairs of regional countries will only exacerbate the complexity and instability of the situation, and will not be conducive to truly solving the problems.
”China’s intention, he argued, is to build peace dividends through economic development programmes, such as connecting infrastructure and trade between communities and countries. Beijing hopes that not imposition of external pressure will dissuade factions from fighting.
The proposal to be marketed by Xue’s trip is contained in China’s Initiative of Peaceful Development in the Horn of Africa, created by Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi.
It seeks to address security, development and governance in one setting by supporting intra-regional dialogue for security by working towards common needs, rather than rivalry.
“China suggests that regional countries hold a conference on the peace in the Horn of Africa to conduct in-depth discussions on this issue, reach political consensus and coordinate common actions,” Wang argued.
Dr Hassan Khannenje, the Director of the Horn International Institute of Strategic Studies in Nairobi told The EastAfrican Beijing could be an attractive mediator because it assures parties of non-interference, but it also serves Beijing’s desire to monitor own interests.
“The Chinese special envoy's visit underscores the importance that China has attached to the region as an important geostrategic place in the emerging geopolitical competition for Africa. Second, it's is also an attempt to protect increased Chinese investments in the volatile region in which stability is critical to securing Chinese interests,” he said on Thursday.
“China is tired of being a spectator in diplomatic engagements in the region, a position that has denied it soft power advantages in the past. For Ethiopia, they are not seen as biased especially by the government. Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s government is highly suspicious of the Western intentions due to their perceived bias over the Tigray conflict,” he argued.
Beijing’s proposal sees countries having the linking infrastructure in future, collapsing physical borders for closer ties, but retaining their sovereignty.
Beijing is marketing the example of the Kenyan Standard Gauge Railway and the Ethiopia-Djibouti Railways as projects that could aid long-term peace.
The proposal though means China will remain central to these projects, financing or building them, as it has with the Ports of Mombasa and Lamu, both critical for future regional trade.
But some critics say focusing on the economic aspects alone may ignore actual causes of conflicts in the Horn.
“Most of the conflicts in Africa revolve around misgovernance of diversity, monopolisation of power, and control of resources (mainly oil, minerals and land). For Africa, China is a good partner in economic delivery but has never been a paragon of diversity governance decentralization of power,” said Dr Mehari Taddele Maru, a professor at the Migration Policy Centre and Academic Coordinator at the School of Transnational Governance at the European University Institute, based in Florence, Italy.
“In many conflicts such as those in Sudan, South Sudan, Tigray (Ethiopia), China is part of the problem. It is loyal to those in power - autocratic or not- and trades armaments, including drones used against the Tigrayan population in recent months. It vetoes resolutions on humanitarian aid in the United Nations Security Council,” Dr Mehari told The EastAfrican on Wednesday.
China, though, has promised to focus on governance, in its version. It supports fighting graft and enhancing accountability, but wants every country to beat its own path of development “suited to their own national conditions and in strengthening exchanges in governance and administration of state affairs to share useful experience and overcome governance bottlenecks.”