Departing Chinese Ambassador to Ethiopia, Tan Jian
Shortly after arriving on December 4, 2017, Ambassador of the Peoples’ Republic of China to Ethiopia, Tan Jian became a dashing figure in Ethiopia’s development activities. Although his tenure matched a period of turbulence in Ethiopia, Tan Jian has had a successful diplomatic stay. His tenure overlapped with the political transition in Ethiopia and the COVID-19 pandemic. Yet, he succeeded in relentlessly pushing for the timely execution of projects, attracting more Chinese investment, and coordinating the fight against the pandemic. He is a popular media figure who reveals the Chinese side of stories, which he argues, are otherwise stereotyped by the West dominated media. EBR’s Ashenafi Endale sat down with him ahead of his end of tenure and departure at the end of September 2020.
Ethio-China bilateral relations significantly blossomed over the last two decades. What factors contributed to China granting Ethiopia ‘most favored nation’ status in Africa?
China loves Ethiopia because Ethiopia is a special country. Ethiopia discovered coffee; China discovered tea. The two countries have a lot of similarities. Ethiopia’s civilization has existed for ages. It has a glorious past fighting colonialism. We have shared similar challenges on our path to development. Before the establishment of the People’s Republic, the Chinese Communist Party studied and adopted Ethiopian guerilla fighting tactics in its fight against colonialism. Ethiopia is also a large country with a large population. Geographically, it is located between the Arab World and sub-Sahara Africa. As thus, we see Ethiopia as the gateway to Africa. Ethiopia has great potential for development. Politically, economically, and culturally, the people of Ethiopia are very friendly to the Chinese people. This is a country on the minds of many Chinese. The friendship dates back thousands of years.
Chinese firms come to Africa in search of cheap labor and that is in line with the natural relocation pattern of global industrial investment. Therefore, how can we label such moves as an outcome of Ethio-China friendship?
Cheap labor is just one element of many factors. Peace, stability, ease of doing business, and Ethiopia’s strategic location as the gateway to Africa are other factors. Currently, Chinese companies are manufacturing COVID-19 test kits in Ethiopia. The test kits are not only for Ethiopia. They have plans to export them to African countries and even to the rest of the world. They also produce test kits for Malaria, HIV, and TB.
Ethiopia is special to China, for the same reason it is the seat of the African Union (AU). Cheap labor is not the major force; rather, increased economic ties are a combination of many factors.
What are the pillars of Ethio-China relations?
Our bilateral relations are considered as a Comprehensive Strategic Cooperative Partnership, to which only the sky is the limit. Ethio-China bilateral ties can be categorized under political mutual trust, cooperation on Belt and Road Initiative, and cooperation in international affairs. Political mutual trust is key to our diplomatic ties. The two countries have maintained frequent high-level exchanges between governments, ruling parties, think thanks, social and cultural groups, as well as between the peoples of the two nations.
Economic cooperation between the two countries is expanded both in depth and width. Pragmatic cooperation has achieved remarkable progress. Chinese companies have continued to vigorously invest in various projects, including the Beautifying Sheger Project. Chinese business people are investing heavily in textile, pharmaceuticals, building materials, steel, ceramics, bamboo, paper, pulp, and others. According to the Ethiopian Investment Commission, until the end of June 2020, Ethiopia has approved over 1,500 Chinese projects. The Chinese FDI stock amounted to USD2.7 billion, 25pct of total FDI projects in Ethiopia during the fiscal year.
The ‘three Is`: Industrialization, Investment, and Infrastructure are crucial for Ethiopia’s development.
Ethiopia is China’s indispensable partner in jointly advancing the Belt and Road initiative (BRI) on the African continent. Ethiopia is amongst the first African countries to sign the document. China also continues to be the largest trade partner and largest source of FDI for Ethiopia. The economic ties will be promoted to a new height based on the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) and BRI.
China will also continue to coordinate with Ethiopia on issues like UN reform, climate change, the 2030 agenda for sustainable development and protecting common interests of both countries. For both China and Ethiopia, the year 2020 will be a historic one as the two countries celebrate the 50th anniversary of the establishment of formal China-Ethiopia diplomatic ties.
Ethiopia is shifting from a developmental state to a market oriented model through privatization. Will this shift affect the presence of Chinese firms and Ethio-China relations?
We always recommend Ethiopia adopts its own development model and policy. We never intervene. We hope Ethiopia and other African countries find a development model that suits and fits their specific situations.
China will also benefit from the ongoing reform and privatization in Ethiopia. China made a miracle by reforming and opening-up to competition, lifting 700 million people out of poverty. We are looking into the specific issues in the ongoing policy reforms in Ethiopia. If it is good for Ethiopia, we will always support it. We want to see a win-win situation. That is why we pursued projects started before my arrival. We doubled our efforts during the reform. My objective was promoting investment, manufacturing, and tourism. We adapt ourselves to Ethiopia’s policies.
Is China using a debt trap to tap into Africa?
I reject the claim China is debt trapping Africa. Africa needs finance to develop. Ethiopia has been using loans to develop infrastructure, investment projects, and industry. Ethiopia did not use the loan for consumption, luxury items for the elite, or any other unnecessary goal. Ethiopia used a loan to build the Ethio-Djibouti Railway (EDR) because 95Pct of its foreign trade is through Djibouti port.
The ratio of Ethiopia’s debt to GDP is not that high. It is only 25pct.There are countries where the debt to GDP ratio stands at 236pct but these countries are still developing. The reason why the debt issue became sensitive in Ethiopia is due to the low level of foreign trade. But China is willing to discuss to alleviate any debt strains.
It is Western countries that make the debt trap claim. Debt should not be politicized. No one politicized debt in 1999 when the World Bank approved loans for highly indebted developing countries. The debt trap accusation is a Western claim to frame China. We are not trapping Ethiopia or any other African country. Our finance is not attached to any political interest. They call China ‘colonialist’ but it was the West that colonized Africa.
The issue of debt became acute because of Ethiopia’s trade deficit. But debt is not an acute problem for developed countries because they have good trade. China is a very large market and it can help Ethiopia improve its exports. China can also further develop Ethiopia in areas of investment and tourism. Ethiopia has nine UNESCO acknowledged tourist sites, the largest number in Africa exceeding even that of Egypt. Ethiopia has the best airline in Africa. Ethiopian Airlines flies to five destinations in China almost on a daily basis. There is also a very friendly visa procedure. So, tourism can also generate a lot of foreign currency for Ethiopia.
You forecasted 2020 will be a special year for China and Ethiopia. Do you think COVID-19 affected Chinese FDI flow to Ethiopia?
I expressed my expectation before the advent of COVID-19. I didn’t know back then that a pandemic would define the year. But I believe COVID-19 has only brought out our solidarity and deepening cooperation between the two countries. It has been a test of our friendship. As the whole world has seen, our solidarity was not in words, but in deeds. A friend in need is a friend in deed.
During China’s hard days under the pandemic, Ethiopian officials and ordinary citizens expressed their solidarity with China through our Embassy. It was not easy for Ethiopian Airlines to continue flying to China after COVID-19 broke out. We understand that during that difficult time, the airline was under tremendous pressure domestically and externally, especially from other African countries. It might have been very convenient to stop flights but it was not the most effective method to fight COVID-19. Chinese passengers aboard Ethiopian Airlines had documents ensuring they were in good health. They wore masks and practiced social distancing. In the first months of COVID-19, China self-imposed a quarantine for 14 days. We did this by ourselves even though there was no requirement in place by the World Health Organization (WHO).
The Ethiopian government and people provided invaluable support to China. PM Ably is the first African leader to talk to President Xi over the phone. Against all odds and mounting pressure, direct flights between China and Ethiopia were never severed. It was a wise decision because not a single COVID-19 case was imported from China to Ethiopia. Ethiopian Airlines also stayed profitable during the pandemic.
China, in turn, provided Ethiopia with all kinds of support required to fight COVID-19. Also, Chinese companies in Ethiopia did not halt operations during the pandemic. They did not stop their business or construction projects. Commercial Bank of Ethiopia’s (CBE) skyscraper, EDR, and many other projects were still under construction during the COVID-19 pandemic. The situation in Djibouti was a bit difficult. We would have been under a difficult situation, had we stopped cargo trains at that time. It was a lifeline and it could not be stopped. Our friendship still has to endure the COVID-19 test. I am optimistic that there will be an expanded cooperation in the post-COVID-19 era. We are closer than ever and we can do a lot more.
China has risen above Western powers to become a leading country in the international fight against COVID-19. Do you think this will give your country leverage to assert itself more in global competitions?
China might have put COVID-19 under control but we are still very vigilant with regards to imported cases. Will China become more powerful? China will be in a better position to contribute to the world. We will share our lessons and experiences in fighting the pandemic, and we have been doing that. We facilitated the building of makeshift hospitals to care for people with minor symptoms of COVID-19.
It is not an issue of global geopolitics for China. Rather, China wants to transcend international cooperation by contributing more to the international community. If China succeeds in producing a COVID-19 vaccine, it will make the finding a global public good despite the production cost. We will prioritize health in our relationships with African countries.
What will be the impact of the US-China trade war on Least Developed Countries (LDCs), especially in Africa and Ethiopia?
China wants to cooperate with the USA as a partner. We do not want to antagonize the US. We do not want to introduce an element of geopolitics in our relations with any country, developed or developing. We do not engage in trade wars. We are willing to cooperate with anyone based on principles.
China-Ethiopia is a South-South cooperation. We want to establish South-North cooperation, including tripartite agreements involving the US. We have a big heart. Not a single day passes by without the USA accusing China, but China has no time to respond.
Do you think Ethiopia can emulate China’s development path?
Each country’s path is different. However, I do believe that Ethiopia will become the first development success story in Africa. I believe Ethiopia will become the manufacturing hub of Africa. Manufacturing is critical for any developing country.
There are a lot of development success stories in Asia. I believe Ethiopia and the whole of Africa can repeat that. As a country that has never been colonized, Ethiopia needs to assert itself for political and economic independence. Africa can do more than getting rid of poverty.
I should have visited all the regions of Ethiopia. I should have learned Amharic. We could have done a lot on tourism, if COVID-19 had not come. Ethiopia has many of the best destinations and Ethiopian Airlines flies to China. China is the largest source of outgoing tourists in the world. In 2019, before COVID-19, 150 million Chinese traveled abroad. If we can cooperate in such areas, the debt would be nothing because the Chinese would spend their money here.
Today, China’s market is so huge that we cannot produce everything to satisfy it. We import coffee, sesame, and others. So, Ethiopia can benefit if it increases production. Ethiopia can introduce irrigation and mechanization to produce throughout the year.
Your unforgettable moments?
The Ethio-Djibouti Railway (EDR). I worked hard to finalize it and kick start its operations. We kept working under COVID-19. The project has already doubled its carrying capacity. The management was also able to break even. They are not able to pay the debt yet but they are covering all their expenses from their own revenue, with a margin of surplus. I am exceptionally glad EDR’s revenue jumped by 51Pct in the first half of 2020. Its daily cargo trains increased to two pairs and this will increase to four pairs by November. By then, the railway will be more than self-reliant and on its way to profitability.
The Friendship Square, which is good for tourist attraction, will reinforce Addis Ababa as the political capital of Africa. Ethiopia still needs such landmark constructions.
What is the impact of Ethiopian politics on Ethio-China strategic cooperation, like the Belt and Road Initiative?
There are no differences. There are two areas of bilateral cooperation: FOCAC and BRI. PM Abiy attended both summits in 2018 and 2019, respectively. Ethiopia is an indispensable partner in the BRI in Africa. Not many African states participated in the belt and road forum.
China firmly supports Ethiopia’s developmental path in line with its own national conditions, and backs the country’s efforts to safeguard its sovereignty, develop its economy, and improve its peoples’ livelihoods. China’s position is steadfast and will not change.
Is there a debt restructuring plan by China to ease the impact of Ethiopia’s poor foreign trade on external debt?
We believe if we can increase trade and tourism between China and Ethiopia, the debt burden can relax even further, although it is not currently huge. During the G20 and WTO meetings as well as the China-Africa summit on solidarity against COVID-19, China’s President announced some initiatives and we are implementing that. China is willing to discuss bilaterally and reach consensus with any country.
What are the major challenges of Chinese investors in Ethiopia?
My work over the last three years was attracting more Chinese investment to Ethiopia. Many Chinese businessmen think of relocating their businesses, given the rise of the price of land and labor in China. I still encourage more Chinese firms to come to Ethiopia and Africa. Ethiopia is the gateway to Africa. The African continent is full of opportunities, especially now that it has forged forward significantly towards a free trade area.
Chinese investors want peace and stability. Peace and stability should be ensured for any investor. I also talked to Ethiopian officials on this matter. Ethiopia is an old civilization. The people are great and have wisdom. I am optimistic Ethiopia will enjoy peace and stability, despite some unrest. The second most important factor Ethiopia should improve is ease of doing business. Ethiopia could improve its rank on the table. Contract implementation, power supply, electricity, water, and all other challenges can be improved. These are the areas where Ethiopia should give a good sign to all investors in the world.
How do you evaluate your stay?
I have tried very hard. It was not easy for me because my tenure overlapped with the profound reform and transition in Ethiopia. It was only two months after my arrival that the then PM of Ethiopia (Hailemariam Desalegn) resigned and Ethiopia started its transition. My focus over the last three years was on maintaining the momentum in this difficult time. So, my tenure was under the difficult time of transition in Ethiopia and the recent suffering from COVID-19.
We have witnessed the reconciliation efforts and dedicated reform work by the Ethiopian government in ensuring social stability, security, advancing privatization of SOEs, as well as promoting social development. During my tenure, we are glad to see the rapid development of friendship in every perspective. Jointly, we made remarkable achievements.
The Chinese people have a philosophy of treating crisis as change and an opportunity. My objective and effort was to keep the momentum of relations between the two countries and bring them to new heights. As per our Comprehensive Strategic Cooperation Partnership, my work is not accomplished yet. We prioritized the health sector because of the pandemic. I have been pushing my government to launch the construction of the African Center for Disease Control (CDC) project. It will be headquartered in Addis. We can do a lot in investment and health because there are a number of tropical diseases in Africa. If success is only in one area, that means it is not comprehensive.
Human resource is also the most important of resources needed for development. Ethiopia has a population of over 100 million and you must learn how to train them.
Ethio-China relations grew over the last decade and they can be strengthened even further. We must make it comprehensive and strategic. Ethiopian media should criticize, but not with words taken from Western media. The reality is that media is Western dominated. Intellectual research is not well developed in developing countries. So, no wonder the media is Western dominated. We are also overcoming the language barrier by blood, sweat, and tears. We communicate with the Western world using their language, which is not easy. But I am not sure they even appreciate that.
We, developing countries, have a long way to go. The developed world should come to terms with the rise of developing countries. If we develop, we no more belong to the lowest end of the global value chain. We start with cheap labor, but we must gradually move up. If Ethiopia moves up, then it starts to attract Chinese high-tech firms. China can help Africa leapfrog into high tech. Then, the monopoly of rich countries in high tech will end. Today’s developing country is China, tomorrow’s is Ethiopia.
I will not miss any opportunity to help Ethiopia in the future. EBR
9th Year • Oct 16 – Nov 15 2020 • No. 91