China plans peace envoy for conflict-riven Horn of Africa

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Omamo [R], Wang Yi [L] meet in Mombasa, Kenya [Photo: Kenya's foreign ministry]

MOMBASA, Kenya - China said on Thursday it would appoint a special envoy to foster peace in the turbulent Horn of Africa and wanted to shift focus on the continent to trade over infrastructure.

Foreign Minister Wang Yi made the comments in Kenya, which has been active in diplomatic efforts to halt the war in Ethiopia since late 2020 between the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF) and Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed's federal government.

He also visited Eritrea, which borders the northern Tigray region, and has been an ally of Abiy in a conflict that has killed thousands of people, uprooted hundreds of thousands, and spread hunger.

"To share political consensus and to coordinate actions, China will appoint a special envoy of the Chinese ministry of foreign affairs for the Horn of Africa," Wang told a news conference in the port city of Mombasa, via an interpreter.

Horn of Africa nations should decide their own destiny and convene a peace conference, Wang added. The region's other major war is in Somalia where Islamist militants al Shabaab are battling a Western-backed government.

China has traditionally been more focused on economic development and trade in Africa than politics and diplomacy, and Wang gave no further details of the envoy's potential role.

Beijing wants to help develop Eritrea's Red Sea coastline, he said, without elaborating on that either.

Chinese officials signed six agreements with Kenyan counterparts, including one allowing Kenyan farmers to export fresh avocados to China. That will enable Kenya to narrow its considerable trade imbalance with China, said Rachel Omamo, Kenya's foreign minister.

'WHAT AFRICA WANTS'

China has been shifting from offering African nations hard infrastructure loans towards increasing trade, which Wang said reflected the reality on the ground.

"It is never about what China wants to do, it is about what Africa wants to do," he said.

The continent's needs were expanding from the building of roads and railways, Wang said, citing the need for vaccines and export opportunities.

Analysts have also attributed the slowdown in Chinese infrastructure lending in Africa.

China's interests in the Horn include its large naval base in Djibouti, a tiny country that overlooks a key global shipping route. Beijing has granted large loans to landlocked Ethiopia, which relies on Djibouti's port for trade.

The region is also threatened by instability in South Sudan, where China has substantial oil investments, and spillover from Somalia that has brought deadly attacks on civilians in neighbouring Kenya, where China also has big interests.

Wang was scheduled to meet Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta later on Thursday before they inspect a new oil terminal at Mombasa, built by China Communication Construction Company (CCCC) for 40 billion shillings ($353.67 million).

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