Ethiopia and China: How Two Former Empires Connected in the 20th Century (Amb. David Shinn))
Ethiopia was never colonized and along with China has a long imperial history. China’s imperial period came to an end with the fall of the Qing dynasty and formation of the Republic of China as a constitutional republic in 1912. The overthrow of Emperor Haile Selassie in 1974 by a left-wing military junta ended Ethiopia’s empire. In 1970, four years before the end of Ethiopia’s empire, the People’s Republic of China established formal diplomatic relations with Haile Selassie’s imperial government.
Although China and Ethiopia have imperial backgrounds, they only became well acquainted after both of them became republics. In the early years, this relationship grew modestly and only began to surge in the mid-1990s when the government of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi encouraged closer ties with China to tap into its financial resources and balance close ties with Western countries, particularly the United States. Today, China is arguably Ethiopia’s most important bilateral economic partner.
While Ethiopia now exports few natural resources of strategic interest to China, it is important for other reasons. With a population of about 90 million people, Ethiopia is the second most populous country in Africa after Nigeria. It serves as the headquarters for the African Union. China provided $200 million in grant assistance and built the new African Union conference center, which came complete with a traditional Chinese-style garden. The New Partnership for Africa’s Development, which China supports, has moved to Addis Ababa and the UN Economic Commission for Africa has its headquarters there. Ethiopia has one of the strongest militaries in Africa and, although landlocked, serves as a regional center for the Horn of Africa.
Ethiopia Eventually Recognizes China
The Republic of China’s (ROC) Chiang Kai-shek government publicly supported Emperor Haile Selassie during the 1936-1941 invasion of Ethiopia by fascist Italy. The ROC was one of the few countries that did not recognize the Italian occupation. Although Ethiopia never recognized the ROC, it appreciated this support and was reluctant to recognize the People’s Republic of China (PRC) following the 1949 victory on the mainland by Mao Zedong. A close ally of the United States in the years following the end of World War II, Haile Selassie sent troops to Korea in the early 1950s. Ethiopian and American forces fought side-by-side with South Korea against Chinese troops who entered the war on the side of North Korea.
As Mao Zedong solidified control over China and the importance of the PRC became increasingly apparent, Ethiopia pursued an ambiguous policy on diplomatic recognition. It accepted agricultural assistance from Taiwan while a PRC cultural mission visited in 1956. The PRC and Ethiopia established trade relations the following year. Ethiopia supported Taiwan in the United Nations from 1950 to 1958, abstained in 1959 and supported Beijing thereafter. Ethiopia sent a cultural delegation to the PRC in 1961, signed an agreement to exchange journalists in 1962 and permitted China’s official news agency, Xinhua, to open an office in Addis Ababa. Premier Zhou Enlai visited Ethiopia in 1964, when China mistakenly thought Haile Selassie was prepared to recognize the PRC.
China’s support for the Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF), which beginning in the early 1960s agitated for independence from Ethiopia, complicated Beijing’s effort to obtain Ethiopian recognition. China provided the Eritrean insurgents covertly with weapons. Ethiopia and China had different policies on a rebel insurgency in neighboring Sudan. Ethiopia supported the southern insurgents while China backed the Arab government in Khartoum, which allowed the ELF to operate from its territory against Ethiopia. Ethiopia also suspected that the PRC backed Somali insurgents in efforts to take control of Somali-inhabited territory in southeastern Ethiopia. When Ethiopia finally recognized the PRC in 1970, it extracted a promise that Beijing would terminate support for the ELF.
Haile Selassie Visits China
In 1971, less than a year after recognizing Beijing, Haile Selassie visited Beijing where he praised both the progress being made in China and Chairman Mao’s “outstanding achievements.” They signed trade, economic, and technical cooperation agreements. China granted Ethiopia an interest-free loan of $84 million and sent several teams to help with Ethiopia’s development. Mengistu Haile Mariam led a left-wing military coup in 1974 that toppled the Haile Selassie monarchy. This development complicated China’s goal to strengthen relations with Ethiopia because the Soviet Union, seeing an opening after Ethiopian relations worsened with the United States, switched its support from neighboring Somalia to Ethiopia. This occurred at the height of the Sino-Soviet conflict; the Soviets promised the Mengistu regime more than China could offer. China made clear that it was ready to give moral support to Ethiopia’s new revolutionary government, but it was not prepared to compete with the Soviets in providing arms and financing. Read more