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This week’s announcement by the governments of Ethiopia and China during the Third Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation in Beijing that they have decided to elevate the two countries’ ties from a “Comprehensive and Enduring Strategic Cooperative Partnership” level to an “All-Weather Strategic Cooperation Partnership” level signals the increased support of China for its long-time ally in the strategic part of Africa. The decision comes on the heels of Ethiopia’s accession to the BRICS bloc of countries, which is dominated by China, in August 2023. Both sides have sung the praises of the decision, with Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (PhD) noting China is an important partner of Ethiopia and further strengthening the bilateral ties is crucial for both and Chinese President Xi Jinping saying, “The two sides should take the establishment of the all-weather strategic partnership as an opportunity to advance common development and win-win cooperation, promote South-South solidarity and cooperation, and safeguard international equity and justice.” Time will tell if the upgrading of relations between the two ancient nations will deliver the intended outcome.

As Ethiopia forges deeper ties with China through such platforms as the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) as well as the Global Development Initiative, the Global Security Initiative and the Global Civilization Initiative proposed by president Xi, it’s incumbent on it to engage in diplomatic juggling given its unique geopolitical position and to safeguard its interest amid the mounting rivalry between China and the United States on the global stage. While some observers contend that the escalation of Sino-Ethiopian relations could potentially lead to a cooling of Ethiopia’s ties with the West, many agree that the West will not do so because it is not in its strategic interest. In fact, they cite the plethora of infrastructure development and green energy schemes launched with much fanfare by the U.S., the European Union and the G7 nations to dent China’s rapidly growing influence in Africa, Asia and Latin America as proof that the West will continue to engage Ethiopia no matter how much it is perceived to have gone over into the China camp.

It’s for this very reason that Ethiopia must play its card smartly and maximize the benefits it derives from the several rival initiatives that the global powers competing for the attention of poor nations like it are trying to sell.  Needless to say, there are red lines the country must set as it tries to have the best of both worlds. First and foremost, it should assert in no uncertain terms its policy sovereignty. As such, it must rebuff any attempt to impose on it policy prescriptions that are not aligned with its policy goals. Second, it needs to make the implementation of projects financed by donors subject to the requirement that the overseas contractors to whom they are awarded outsource certain portions of them to local contractors. This will go some way towards ensuring the transfer of knowledge and technology, thereby enhancing the country’s execution capacity and reducing its dependence on others.

The imperative for Ethiopia to prosecute a foreign-policy juggling act is not limited to navigating prudently the challenges that the tug-of-war between China and the West entail for it, though. Ethiopia is situated in a region beset with a complex set of political, social, and economic challenges. It faces security challenges, including cross-border conflicts and terrorism threats. In addition, the shared natural resources it is endowed with, particularly the waters of the Nile River, require delicate handling due to the straining of relations of they have caused downstream nations. Accordingly, it’s eminently in its interest to pursue a foreign policy which enables it to balance its relationships with neighboring and regional countries to maintain stability. Creating friendly relationships with these nations and managing the ties effectively can help Ethiopia prevent conflicts in a volatile corner of the world that may spill-over into its territory and ease tensions in the region.

Aside from political considerations, economic factors and the enhancement of Ethiopia’s international stature are also at play here.  As one of the fastest-growing economies in Africa, Ethiopia has to strengthen its trade and investment ties globally in order to extricate itself from the clutches of poverty and steer on the path to prosperity. Towards this end, it’s of the essence to attract greater foreign investments, negotiate favorable trade agreements, and develop partnerships that promote economic growth. Efforts to accelerate its economic development ought to be complimented by measures aimed at increasing its standing as a respected and influential voice on the global stage so that it can participate meaningfully in crucial decision-making processes and advocate for its interests.

As Ethiopia seeks to stay on top of both local and international developments that are particularly challenging, it must engage in diplomatic juggling to protect its national interests, maintain regional stability, negotiate resource agreements, drive economic development, address security concerns, and enhance its international influence. By effectively managing multiple diplomatic relationships, it can navigate complex challenges and seize opportunities that will usher in sustainable peace, stability and prosperity for its people.

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