A commentary authored by Michael Rubin, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and published on July 23, 2021, by the 19FortyFive Group, hinted at the possibility that President Xi Jinping may send an expeditionary force to help Ethiopians defeat Tigrayan rebels. The Chinese have been quiet about this issue to date. But is this possible, and why would China want to intervene militarily in Africa? China rarely makes categorical statements about domestic issues of other nations, and has so far kept a low public profile concerning the Tigray crisis, partly because it has its own ways of projecting influence.
Economic Instruments of Geopolitics
Unlike USG whose foreign policy tools are disproportionately biased towards the use of military force and intelligence operations, China is more reliant on geoeconomic tools that allow it to leverage its limited ability to project military power far from the First Island Chain off the Chinese seaboard in the Pacific Ocean. China uses a reward-punishment binary to signal its approval or disapproval of a nation’s policy; while USG simply backs an armed belligerent with covert or overt support provided by the State Department, Pentagon, and the Intelligence Community. For instance, China signaled approval of South Korea’s rejection of hosting an American high-altitude air defense system by allowing previously disapprobated South Korean companies to access the Chinese domestic market. On the other hand, Beijing showed disapproval of the Phillipines’ South China Sea policies by refusing to buy Filipino bananas and freezing the signing of new trade deals. Therefore, the best way to gauge Beijing’s stand on the current Ethiopian crisis is to read the trade deals that it is signing, and whether it is increasing or decreasing investments in the nation. Despite popular belief that China only focuses on profit when signing these trade deals, this is not really the case as sovereign default is also a foreign policy tool deployed by Beijing.
What are Sovereign Default and Debt-Trap Diplomacy?
It is known that Beijing does lend money to nations that it knows will fail to repay back. As expected, the indebted nation is unable to pay back its debts to Beijing, and this is described as a sovereign default. Sovereign default can be used as an economic instrument for use in geopolitics. USG describes the use of sovereign default as a geopolitical tool as debt-trap diplomacy because it forces the defaulting nations to give economic, political, and policy concessions to China.
Washington considers China’s use of debt trap diplomacy as a method for Beijing to advance Chinese hegemonic goals across the world, and one of the ways to counter this is to cause fragmentation of nations that have defaulted on their Chinese loans so that China is forced to suffer loan non-repayment from hostile new nations created from the collapsed nation.
According to Jennifer Harris and Robert Blackwill in their book, War by Other Means, USG foreign policy is incoherent because of the disproportionate influence of the Pentagon and Intelligence Agencies in policy formulation. Consequently, this has led to USG advancing expensive policies that exact a high toll on financial and military resources, besides causing state failure in targeted nations and fomenting regional instability, especially if the USG backs the wrong armed belligerents. However, in the case of Ethiopia, USG’s support to TPLF is not only limited to the Pentagon, Intelligence Community, and the State Department, but is more encompassing of the American policy-making establishment as witnessed by the adoption of policies that impact foreign aid to Ethiopia and imposition of sanctions. This shows that geo-economic tools are being used to advance USG’s interests in the Horn of Africa region. Some of the desired goals are to help TPLF achieve some political and military objectives, and at the very least, make Abiy-led Ethiopia an unsuitable investment destination with intra-state violence limiting the ability of Ethiopians to exploit the Blue Nile and GERD, which is what Egypt desires because it aligns well with its water security needs.
Nonetheless, if China decides to militarily assist Ethiopia to stabilize the nation, will the Biden administration stand with the TPLF? This is currently unknown, but if Syria is used as a case study, then American provision of material support for TPLF will be dependent on TPLF having access to a land corridor to any neighboring nation that hosts American troops or is an American ally, just as the Syrian rebels had access of routes to Jordan or Turkey where they could get supplies. Likewise, this neighboring nation must be committed and powerful enough to send troops to the Ethiopian border, or even into Ethiopia to support the TPLF or work alongside it. At the moment, such a nation is Sudan, though Khartoum is not as strong nor powerful as Ethiopia, but Egyptian military support can improve its military capabilities. But what will happen if TPLF is deprived of a powerful regional ally?
USG can Betray its Allies
In a commentary published on July 15, 2021, by Washington Examiner, John Bolton criticizes the alliance management policy of the Biden administration. He writes that “Biden already has a significant record of throwing allies under the bus when it suits him” and then notes that “allies aren’t exactly breathlessly acceding to his positions”. This implies that American allies doubt American promises to stand with them when the going gets tough. The defeat in Afghanistan confirms Bolton’s assessment about how opportunely President Biden can throw allies under the bus. In fact, Biden criticized the Afghan army for its defeat and declared that “Afghanistan political leaders gave up and fled the country. The Afghan military gave up, sometimes without trying to fight”. Though this indictment is true to a large extent, the crisis response to the Taliban’s victory has left some allies, and envoys like Michael Bloomberg, questioning the level of American commitment to the security needs of their allies.
More concerning was Biden’s walk-back on American commitment to promote democracy globally, and he confirmed this when he noted that USG’s “mission in Afghanistan was never supposed to have been nation-building…it was never supposed to be creating a unified, centralized democracy”. USG had executed an overt foreign-imposed regime change (FIRC) on Afghanistan in 2001 and justified the American occupation of Afghanistan as necessary for building democracy in the Muslim-majority nation. USG even justified the tragic occupation of Iraq as necessary so as to impose democracy in the nation using a foreign-cultivated regime.
Regrettably, just like in multi-ethnic Rwanda, USG sponsored a fundamentally flawed parliamentary system that disenfranchised the majority and rewarded the minority that served American interests; and this mistake quickly forced USG to walk back on democracy promotion and instead prioritize funding regime stabilization efforts for unpopular regimes. In Rwanda, the Tutsi minority continue to benefit from American largesse to Kagame’s non-democratic regime, while in Afghanistan, USG created a centralized presidential system with weak parliamentary checks that favored the minorities from the North, but disenfranchised the majority of Pashtuns who lived in Southern Afghanistan. This partly explains why most Afghans did not oppose the Taliban takeover of their regions. As Andrew Enterline and Michael Greig noted in 2008, the “survival of imposed democracy is by no means assured” if the imposed regime is unpopular and lacks native legitimacy.
So, if USG is not in the business of “creating a unified, centralized democracy” in other nations, why do regime change advocates in America use democracy promotion as a policy tool for advocating for FIRC? The promotion of FIRC has targeted Syria, Iraq, Libya, and Iran. Relatedly, President Biden is not only walking back on democracy promotion, but he is even undermining American allies with flawed policy choices.
President Biden struck a deal with President Putin of Russia regarding Israeli military operations in Syria, and this deal undermined some Israeli security needs. In this deal, the Russian Military is allowed to equip their Syrian allies with more powerful air defense systems, some of which come with area denial capability that could prevent Israeli warplanes from entering the Syrian airspace. This has denied the Israeli Air Force the freedom of operation over Syrian skies, and currently, Israeli warplanes are limited to flying into Lebanon, sometimes using passenger planes as cover, in order to shoot air-to-surface missiles at targets in Syria. Still, the effectiveness of these Israeli air raids has reduced considerably since the Pantsir-BUK-SA-10 Grumble air defense systems were set up in Syria.
Israel is not the only nation that feels betrayed by the Biden administration. Saudi Arabia and Ethiopia also complain about USG undermining their fundamental national interests. Unlike Ethiopia, Saudi Arabia has found a way to use American contractors to go around adverse American policies. This can work well for Saudis because American leaders can be indecisive, and supportive (i.e Pro-Saudi) policymakers can be committed to advancing their shared goals.
American Leaders can be Indecisive
USG has presided over foreign policy failures that have destabilized nations, with the most damaging of these failures occurring during Democrat-led administrations. As expected, this has led to fierce criticism of USG’s foreign policies. An example is the criticism leveled against Barack Obama by Zbigniew Brzezinski. Brzezinski diagnosed Obama’s foreign policy failure to predilection for sermonizing to national leaders without having a workable policy to back up his categorical rhetoric that a particular leader should do a specific action.
President Obama was known for making categorical statements to Presidents of other nations. It was not uncommon for Obama’s speeches to these leaders to feature straightforward phrases like “This is unacceptable”, “He must do that”, or “You must do this”. Consider the speech that Obama made on May 19, 2011, concerning the Syrian protest, “President Assad now has a choice: He can lead that transition or get out of the way”. In July 2022, President Bashar al-Assad is still in power and on the clasp of ultimate victory in the bloody Syrian Civil War, while Obama is now a former president with his then Vice President, Joe Biden, now ruling an America whose public has little faith in the American political system. Oddly, President Biden forbid American soldiers in Washington D.C from being armed lest some of them try to harm him, something that President Assad never did in his capital of Damascus.
Despite fierce rhetoric, Obama’s administration lacked practical measures to implement the objectives of this rhetoric, and thus his ad nauseum categorical rebukes of President Assad had little impact as the Alawite-led Syrian administration continued transferring weapons to Hezbollah and fought off rebel advances in Damascus. To the shock of America’s allies like France and Saudi Arabia, on August 31, 2013, President Obama stated publicly that he has no intention of toppling President Assad. This revelation came at a time when Saudis and the French had warplanes on their runways ready to begin an air campaign against the Baath Administration in Syria so as to help the rebels achieve a military victory.
Even in the Libyan crisis, Obama was indecisive, but the Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton was resolute about the need for regime change in Libya. Failure by the USG to strongly intervene in Libya provided an opening for Sarkozy and Cameroon to organize a joint French-British military campaign to oust the colorful tyrant, Muammar Gaddhafi, from power. Against the advice of then Vice President, Joe Biden, Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Michael Mullen; President Obama joined the Sarkozy-Cameroon anti-Gaddhafi alliance, even penning a joint article that was published by the New York Times on April 14, 2011, in which the 3 western leaders categorically stated that “it is impossible to imagine a future for Libya with Qaddafi in power”.
Gates and Mullen had concluded that Libya’s tribal society and inability of the political opposition to garner popular support were major reasons why Gaddafi had not been toppled by popular protests, like it had happened to the autocratic leaders of 2 of Libya’s neighbors – Tunisia and Egypt where Zine el Abidine ben Ali and Hosni Mubarak were forced to give up power. Gaddafi’s regime fought off the armed rebels backed by the international coalition for 8 months before succumbing to defeat in Sirte where he (Gaddafi) was killed. For the region, the defeat of Gaddafi plunged Libya into a civil war that continues to date. Had Gates and Mullen pushed more forcefully against non-intervention, the prognosis for Libya could have been better.
Indecisive USG and Good Advisors can Benefit Ethiopia
During the current Ethiopian crisis, there is need to amplify the voices of bureaucrats in the state department and department of defense who believe that the inability of TPLF to garner popular support in a multiethnic Ethiopia is sufficient reason to support democratic and economic reforms in a united Ethiopia, rather than support ethno-nationalist forces. Moreover, it is unlikely that China and Russia will allow the UN to authorize any military actions against GoE.
Currently, it is possible that President Biden will not pursue extremely harsh policies against GoE, but will allow the state department to issue statements peppered with fierce critiques and condemnatory rhetoric. This means that the disconnect between rhetoric and policy will continue to be evident, at least for the short term. For regime change advocates, marrying rhetoric to USG policies would require extensive narrative management and sustained information warfare against GoE to mold popular perception in America. This leaves covert regime change operations as their most viable option. However, such covert operations, which are usually supervised by intelligence agencies, can be attenuated by wise diplomacy and good defensive realism.
What about TPLF? Possibly, TPLF acknowledges that USG is unlikely to provide any overt hard support unless it (TPLF) presses on GoE for concessions, at which point, USG may pressure GoE to concede to TPLF’s demands. Also, there are 2 possible scenarios concerning the path TPLF may choose from – State Inversion or Security Perimeter Nation. The path chosen will depend on how GoE, USG, TPLF, and other concerned parties will handle the conflict. Each of these 2 probable scenarios is considered in another post.
Enterline, A. J., & Greig, J. M. (2008). Against all Odds?: The History of Imposed Democracy and the Future of Iraq and Afghanistan. Foreign Policy Analysis, 4(4), 321-347.
Blackwill, R. D., & Harris, J. M. (2016). War by Other Means. Harvard University Press.