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Beijing plans pioneering peace conference in the Horn of Africa

Working with Ethiopia and Kenya, China's envoy Xue Bing promises to send engineers and scientists, not arms

China is to step up and diversify its regional role in the Horn and East Africa by organising a peace conference this year to be jointly hosted by Kenya and Ethiopia, the two biggest economies in the region. Both countries have racked up billions of dollars of debt to China that is now proving problematic (AC Vol 63 No 4, Governments are maxing out the credit card).

Taking on Beijing's newly-created role of special envoy for the Horn of Africa, veteran diplomat Xue Bing is at the centre of the planning for the conference. It shows how Beijing's 'peaceful development' plan in Africa is changing from an economic focus to one that includes more diplomatic and security operations (AC Vol 63 No 1, Military tactics dominate).

Insisting that Beijing's policies would respect national sovereignty, Bing says it will offer conflict resolution plans that allow nations to choose what works for them. 'Some countries are just fed up with the foreign interventions,' he said, adding that China will not compete with the west in arming fighters in the region. Beijing would send engineers and scientists rather than weapons, Bing told journalists in Nairobi.

'We respect and support regional countries to settle their differences independently. It is a Chinese proposal, but the regional countries will play a leading role and be the main actors,' said Bing. The conference is expected to see proposals from Beijing on security, development and governance.

The Horn is a major destination for China's development loans. Djibouti is home to China's first overseas naval base, overlooking a key shipping route. Beijing has invested heavily in Ethiopia. It has been establishing its presence in Somalia and has substantial oil investments in South Sudan.

Beijing's Foreign Minister Wang Yi visited Eritrea in January in what was seen as a response to the United States sanctions against President Issayas Afewerki's government for its role in the war in Tigray. Beijing plans to help develop Eritrea's Red Sea coastline.

China's new diplomatic sortie is also seen as a way to protect its trillion-dollar belt and road plans in the region which are threatened by mounting debt burdens and regional conflicts and political stalemates in Ethiopia, Somalia, Sudan and South Sudan.

According to the Fanhai International School of Finance in Shanghai, the total outstanding public external debt owed by by developing countries to China is now running at US$110 billion, an increase of $5bn since 2019. Djibouti owes 55% of its foreign debt to Chinese lenders.

After urging by the International Financial Institutions, China cautiously engaged with the G20's modest relief plans in 2020-2021. But bankers say more radical measures will be required if Russia's war on Ukraine continues to disrupt international trade. Stung by Washington's accusation that it has been using debt-accumulation as a diplomatic weapon in Africa, Beijing has been promising a more creative response to current financial pressures.

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