The Dragon and The Nile

By Patrick Keys

(This is a continuation of this blog’s Nile River series, click here for the full list.)

The annual meeting of the Nile Basin Initiative (NBI) approaches, and this post aims to place these current events into the broader patterns of regional engagement, particularly on the part of the People’s Republic of China. But, before we dive in to that lets get up to speed on recent events. (If you can’t wait to know what I think, feel free to jump to the conclusions)

Getting up to speed

In 2011, following the ousting of former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, a question was raised here on this blog about whether the hawkish legacy of Mubarak would continue to guide Egypt’s attitude towards the Nile river, and its allocation – or – whether a different stance would be taken given the growing power and clout of the upstream riparians, namely Ethiopia. At the time, given the euphoric sense of rediscovering popular power in Egypt, the progress of the NBI, and the emergence of a new Nile Basin country in South Sudan, it appeared that there was a unique opportunity for the regional powers to set a new course of political cooperation based on economic integration and shared strategic interests.


Mohamed Morsi at press conference in 2012. Wikimedia, by Jonathan Rashad

Though there has not been any actual conflict, and I still maintain that an outright conflict is unlikely, the tone of Egypt’s president Mohamed Morsi on Egypt’s historic and future allocation has steadily become more aggressive. This has been happening in front of a backdrop of both increasing development in the upstream countries, as well as increasing political cooperation. Notably, Ethiopia’s legislature formally joined the Nile Basin Initiative, cementing their partnership with the basin-wide organization of Nile nations.

South Sudan is assuming the chair of the NBI this month, and the annual meeting will be held in its capital Juba on Thursday. In the lead up to the meeting, Ethiopia has been diverting flow of the Blue Nile for construction of the Grand Renaissance Dam, the tripartite technical committee (of Egypt, Ethiopia, and Sudan) evaluating the dam has completed the report (which, according to some sources, says impacts will be minimal), and Egypt and Ethiopia are aiming to “swim together” rather than “sink together.”

Understanding these headlines requires taking a step back from the news cycle though. And this article aims to explore the role of China in fostering and influencing Nile basin changes (if you can’t wait feel free to jump to the conclusions).

Don’t let the 门 hit you on the 后身

As the US reorients away from the Middle East & North Africa and towards East Asia, China is perhaps filling some of the empty space by pivoting towards Africa. Much has been made of Chinese activity in Ethiopia, particularly of their involvement in the construction and financing of infrastructure. This is really only a surprise to the status quo, as the construction firms aren’t the familiar (i.e. Western) names, and the financing doesn’t come from the familiar faces (i.e. the World Bank or the IMF).


Longsheng, Guilin, China. Copyright Patrick Keys, All Rights Reserved

The recent experiences of how-not-to get involved in other country’s affairs (see: Afghanistan and Iraq) is fresh in the minds of the US and the EU, and thus calls to Western nations to support Egyptian or Sudanese claims to historic allocations of the Nile are unlikely to succeed. Furthermore, China is unlikely to seize the opportunity, in a Western sense, given their profoundly different approach to foreign policy and foreign aid.

Contrary to much commentary, I think that China will serve as a stabilizing, external force by providing a less-red-tape-laden approach to economic development. Though this method has garnered criticism for some of its projects, it also means that development is likely to happen faster than it would under a more regulated system.

Lets test this claim a bit though. Is China “more on the side” of Ethiopia than Egypt? Is it more neutral than that? How might we examine this?


A starting point is the economic relationship between countries in the region and China. First, trade flows between regional nations & China are worth exploring (Table 1).


Table 1. Trade flows between China and selected Nile Basin countries (created by Patrick Keys, data source CIA World Factbook)

As a percentage of total exports (2011 values), Ethiopia reports a value of 12% of exports, whereas Egypt reported no flows to China. On the other hand, Egypt beats Ethiopia’s import levels by nearly 5 times. This is in part due to Egypt’s much larger economy. When the absolute values are adjusted relative to the size of the total economy, however, Ethiopia actually imports more than Egypt as a fraction of total imports.

Admittedly, these numbers came from a very quick search on the CIA World Factbook which has its own limitations. This is merely meant to be illustrative of the bilateral relationships between China & Ethiopia as well as China & Egypt. Though China undoubtedly values the nations that drive its currently export-driven economy , bilateral relationships are more important for the future.


Shenzhen port, China. Copyright Patrick Keys, All Rights Reserved

According to another report, Egypt represented China’s 5th largest trading partner in 2011, and its 4th largest in 2012 (after South Africa, Angola, and Nigeria). According to this, Egypt is China’s most important trading partner in North Africa, which could give the relationship added weight in diplomatic affairs. Ethiopia’s economy isn’t big enough to compare in absolute terms to Egypt’s, and thus would not rank very highly for the continent. All this being said, as China transitions towards importing more raw materials and exporting services and higher-input industrial products, relationships like the one it has with Ethiopia will become ever more important, and Egypt might be wise to adjust accordingly.

Who’s more important then? I’m inclined to say neither and both. Egypt is a major trading partner for China in North Africa, while Ethiopia represents much larger opportunities for a long-term, development-oriented relationship

One Dragon or Two?

Throughout this article I’ve been using the word “China” to refer to the People’s Republic of China, on the mainland. Why do I bother pointing out the obvious? Because not everyone sees China (or, the Chinese) the same way. More important than the economic ties discussed above, are the political ramifications of either recognizing “Two Chinas“, that is, recognizing Taiwan as an independent nation, versus the “One-China” policy, where China and Taiwan are the same country (see Figure 1).



Figure 1. “Two Chinas” map showing affiliations of various states (source NuclearVacuum, Wikimedia Commons)

In short, the One-China policy refers to China’s geopolitical and economic strategy to isolate Taiwan. China (formally, ‘People’s Republic of China’, or PRC) tends to look unfavorably upon countries that recognize Taiwan (formally, ‘Republic of China’ or ROC). It may come as a surprise that any nation would intentionally do something to incur the PRC’s disfavor, but the simple reason is that recognition of ROC is likely to come with large piles of Taiwanese money. There are few countries internationally that recognize ROC as the ‘legitimate’ government of China, but there are some, and they include several nations in Africa such as Burkina Faso, The Gambia, Sao Tome & Principe, and Swaziland (according to recent data).

Deborah Brautigam has done a great deal of work studying Chinese (that is, both PRC and ROC) involvement in Africa, and the dynamics associated with political recognition and corresponding foreign investment. For more on this, checkout her blog here (she also happens to be the author of an excellent book entitled “The Dragon’s Gift” exploring China’s foreign aid in Africa).

All of the Nile riparians acknowledge the PRC as the legitimate government of China, and thus on that score Egypt, Ethiopia, and the rest are equivalent.


No, I’m not talking about a delicious new beverage, nor am I talking about an upcoming concert – I’m talking about how China’s relationship with Ethiopia is currently flowing mostly in one direction from China to Ethiopia. Since I can’t paraphrase this well enough, here’s a bit from Wikipedia:

The economic relationship is one-sided, with China providing large amounts of foreign aid (often tied to infrastructure projects undertaken by Chinese firms), growing Chinese investment in the Ethiopian economy and with imports of cheap consumer goods from China greatly exceeding exports from Ethiopia to China. The Chinese appear to be interested in Ethiopia primarily as a source of materials, potentially including oil and food, and as a market for Chinese exports that will expand as Ethiopia’s rapid economic growth continues. For Ethiopia, Chinese involvement is stimulating economic growth and helping promote exports to other countries. China’s “business is business” approach is welcome by comparison to western aid providers who often link their contributions to changes in the Ethiopian legal and political structure.

(Source: For more on this, checkout the full section on Economic Relations in the Wikipedia article “China-Ethiopia relations”, 2013.)

The relationship described above contrasts that of the relationship between China and Egypt, which appears to be one based primarily on trade, notably Egyptian imports of Chinese goods. This difference is important for many reasons, but key among them is the importance of getting involved in a country as it develops. Though China’s currently being pilloried for its seemingly extractive activity in Africa, it is much less damaging than the headlines suggests and perhaps much, much less damaging compared to Western colonialism and Western-style tied-aid. Though China is capable of doing things simply because they are humanitarian rather than purely profitable, China undoubtedly sees the “downstream” benefits of helping Ethiopia to develop in terms of the preferential relationships (political, economic, etc.) it may receive in the future.

Will the Dragon swim upstream, downstream, or both directions?

How do all of these internal dynamics surrounding Ethiopia, Egypt, and the Nile broadly interact with these external Chinese influences? Based on my assessment it seems clear to me that China does not show a clear preference towards Ethiopia over Egypt, but is more simply seeking out opportunities as they arise. Rather than signing up exclusively to support one nation over another, China seems to be invested in the overall economic growth and success of Egypt and Ethiopia.


Chinese dragon at dragon-dance for Chinese New Year 2000 in Helsinki. By Caseman

The sum of these different parts is that regional prosperity, driven in part by trade, financing, and strategic economic partnerships with China, will increase overall economic development. If Ethiopia can manage to lift its millions out of poverty (with the support of a country who has recently done the same thing), then Egypt will no longer have a low-income neighbor to its south, and rather a new regional power.

Moreover, Morsi and his government should realize that they will very quickly be on the wrong side of history, as they behave as though they have another option to cooperating with the upstream nations in the Nile basin. The end-game for the Nile Basin is moving inevitably towards one of cooperation among the upstream riparian nations from which nearly all the water originates.

As China’s economic aid, loans, and partnerships strengthen in the region, the Chinese will be more and more likely to err on the side of preserving and protecting their investments, translating to stability rather than turmoil. It is good then, that its investments, both diplomatic as well as physical, are not only in Ethiopia, but across the Nile region.