Redeeming the Ethio-US Relations as the World is Heading Towards Great Power Rivalry

A snapshot from US national security strategy.

By mid-October 2022, two of the world’s leading economies, the US and China, have unveiled their strategic political documents highlighting their perspective for the coming decade and the ways they think would help them conquer the decade to come.

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 is facing 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.”

A similar tone of the statement is also reflected in Xi Jinping’s speech at the opening session of the 20th national congress of the Communist Party of China. As it is 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”.

While the US is working to ‘outcompete’ China in the coming decade, the latter, on the other hand, chose to pursue a modernization better than what it has achieved so far. The polemics in the interest of the two powers implies that a decade from now will be tough 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 to help us understand the type of emerging global order and 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.

As far as US national security strategy is concerned, it has faced two strategic threats: the first is related to its superpower position, and the other is related to the problems affecting the entire people across the world. The first strategic threat emanates from states practicing ‘authoritarian governance’ and ‘revisionist foreign policy to challenge the ‘rule-based international order.’

In the view of the US, the order in place has been serving the interests of the US 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 laws of the international order today, as its brutal war of aggression against Ukraine has shown. The PRC, by contrast, is the only competitor intending 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 globally though the US 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.

On the other side of the pole, China is focusing on 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 through ‘peaceful reunification’ or ‘the options of taking all necessary measures. 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 challenging 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. On the other hand, China is readying itself to use all necessary measures to unify Taiwan with mainland China.

This is a worrisome development for the people of the world to be exposed to the competition of great power nations. There is a looming cold-war type of global threat though the US promises “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.”

The US 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 the US strength, i.e., boosting the science and technology capability of the country and strengthening its democracy.

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

The third set of activities is building the defense force in a way that backs the US diplomacy and deters any threat. But, the US 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 the spatial application of these activities worldwide.

In the history of US foreign policy, it is common to observe a similar pattern in threat identification and to deal with the identified threat.

The “either with us or against us” approach focuses on a specific problem, and targeting a nation is still a global challenge. The post-WWII US foreign policy was dominated by the fight against socialism by identifying Soviet Russia as a prime promoter of socialist ideology and authoritarian governance across the world. A decade after the end of the cold war, US foreign policy decision-makers spearheaded another type of threat in the other part of the world, i.e., terrorism. The same pattern is being replicated now by targeting China.

Therefore, it is plausible to expect an increasing geopolitical rivalry between China and the US to view the coming decade as an essential temporal age to determine their position in the global order. Even though it is difficult to clearly portray the type of rivalry to come between the great powers, it will incur adverse effects for countries like Ethiopia.

Hence, Ethiopia has to identify the potential areas of 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 the US aspires to achieve and areas the US could work with Ethiopia:

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

The US 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, promotes shared prosperity, and enables cooperation on shared challenges. The US strongly disapproves of aggression, coercion, and external interference” (18). Whether such states are democratic or not, the US is ready to work with them.

Similarly, the entire history of Ethiopia’s foreign relations 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 a founding member of the United Nations and has a firm belief in the principles and values of the Organization. There is no difference between Ethiopia and the US in working under the UN system and favoring the rules-based international order.

2. Working together towards a prosperous world

As the US plans to work with allies and partners on development and the expansion of human dignity, no difference between Ethiopia and the US compels them from working together. Ethiopia has excellent growth potential, and support coming from the developed nations plays a critical role in the path toward prosperity. The interest of the US in helping build a prosperous world can be another area of cooperation between the two nations.

3. Accompanying the struggle against food insecurity

Ethiopia is also the victim of surging food prices and shortages in the food supply, similar to other nations worldwide. 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 almost a revolutionary manner, the country is emerging as a major wheat producer country. The potential of agriculture in Ethiopia is immense, given its vast landmass and available water resource. While the US is trying to avert the food security problem, Ethiopia can be the best candidate for partnership.

4. Fighting terrorism altogether

Ethiopia and US have more than two-decade history of partnership in the fight against terrorism. Since terrorism is still a common threat for both and there is an accumulated experience on the battlefield, it will be easy to maintain the tradition.

5. Strengthening democratic governance

From the African continent’s point of view, the US 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 eliminate the last vestiges of authoritarianism and embracing political reforms in the move toward democracy. The support of the US is going to be immense to consolidate democratic governance.

Autor: Darskedar Taye (Ph.D.), Lead Researcher for Asia and the Pacific Affairs, Institute of Foreign Affairs (IFA)