Washington — When Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki arrived in China for a four-day state visit, he was greeted with fanfare that included a red carpet, a guard of honor military procession and a 21-gun salute.
Analysts say Eritrea and China need each other and are working to strengthen already-existing ties.
During a speech in Beijing’s Great Hall, Chinese President Xi Jinping said China and Eritrea “share a deep bond of friendship (in) an uncertain and unstable world.”
“A strong China-Eritrea relationship is not only in line with the common and long-term interests of both countries, but also for maintaining regional peace,” Xi said.
The two presidents discussed partnering on development related to infrastructure, telecommunications, agriculture, mining and fisheries, according to China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. China pledged to send medical teams and senior agricultural experts to Eritrea.
In April, when the conflict in neighboring Sudan erupted, 35 Chinese nationals were evacuated from Sudan to Eritrea’s capital city, Asmara. Xi thanked Eritrea for that effort during Isaias’ visit, saying it “demonstrated the profound friendship between the two countries … and [a willingness in] helping each other in difficulties,” China’s foreign ministry said in a statement.
Isaias’ ties to China date back to 1967, when he received military training there which he used in Eritrea’s 30-year fight for independence.
As an independent nation, Eritrea has been a dependable ally to China on the international stage.
“[Isaias] has wished to cultivate a close relationship with China. This has included voting in support of China in international forums — for example, in June 2020, Eritrea was one of 53 countries who backed the Hong Kong national security law at the United Nations,” said Alex Vines, head of the Africa program at the London-based think tank Chatham House.
Eritrea also signed an agreement with China in 2021 to be part of its Belt and Road Initiative which envisions a global network of ports, railways and other infrastructure to transport goods. Vines said China has reduced its investment in Africa since the COVID-19 pandemic but continues to view the Horn of Africa as strategically important as a trade corridor and entry-point to the continent.
Eritrea’s status as one of the most diplomatically isolated countries in the world has not deterred China from maintaining the relationship. “I think what President [Isaias] Afwerki is looking for is a deepening partnership, friendship with the country that he feels he can get more investment because the Eritrean economy is in trouble,” Vines said.
China broke ground on a copper, zinc and ore mine in Eritrea last year that it says will be a joint project. It has financed other projects including a 500-kilometer (311-mile) road between Eritrea’s Massawa and Assab ports.
Awet Weldemichael, a professor of history and global development studies at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, Canada, said much of the nature of the economic relationship between the two countries is unknown.
“China has already been the single largest lender to the country, but as in all other cases, the terms of the borrowings are unknown and we don’t know when or if at all Eritrea will get to a point of defaulting as have others like Zambia,” Awet said.
Others say, with this trip, China is seeking to win support at the U.N.
“China is shopping for support in Africa now,” said Dan Connell, an author who has written about the region since the war for independence. “And given that Eritrea’s votes are basically up for sale, I think that Isaias went there to make a deal. His support for China, in the general assembly, in exchange for China’s support for Eritrea and the Chinese have already indicated they’re giving it.”
Abraham Zere with VOA’s Horn of Africa’s Tigrigna Service contributed to this report.