interview with former Chinese Ambassador to Eritrea, Mr. Shu Zhan

China Regards Eritrea Good Partner and Comrade from Strategic and Long-term Perspective, Ambassador Shu Zhan

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Dear readers, we are delighted to bring you a special Q&A session from Beijing with the former Chinese Ambassador to Eritrea, Mr. Shu Zhan, to share his insights on the occasion of the 30th anniversary of diplomatic relations between Eritrea and China on a range of issues related to China-Eritrea relations.

Over the course of his career, Ambassador Shu developed a keen interest in the Horn of Africa and began to study the region at the Institute of West-Asian and African Studies under the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in 1977. Following his academic pursuits, he then joined the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and went on to work in six countries in East and Southern Africa. From 2006 – 2009, he served as the Ambassador of the People’s Republic of China to the State of Eritrea for three and a half years and left an excellent impression. Excerpts of the interview follow:

Q : Can you share your thoughts on the significance of the 30th anniversary of diplomatic relations between Eritrea and China?

According to the Chinese historical book “The Book of the Later Han Dynasty“(written in AD 445), envoys from the ancient state Adulis by the Red Sea arrived in Luoyang, the capital of the Eastern Han Dynasty (AD 25-220), through the Maritime Silk Road of Red Sea and the Indian Ocean in the year 100 AD, they were the earliest envoys from Africa to visit China. And the first Chinese traveled to Africa, Du Huan of China’s Tang Dynasty (618-907), and returned home from Massawa in AD 762.

The new China and Eritrea established formal diplomatic ties in 1993, however, their practical ties of friendship and cooperation had begun in earnest 60 years ago.

China has provided moral and material support to the liberation struggle of the Eritrean people from its outset. As early as the 1960s, nearly 30 Eritrean freedom fighters went to Nanjing Advanced Infantry School in China, including President Isaias Afwerki and Comrade Romadan Mohammed Nur, the late Chairman of the Eritrean Election Committee.

On the day of Eritrea’s independence, May 24, 1993, China’s Vice Foreign Minister Yang Fuchang, the Chinese government special envoy attended the independence ceremony and signed the Communique on the establishment of diplomatic relations between the two countries and the China-Eritrea Trade and Economic and Technological Cooperation Agreement with Eritrea’s Foreign Minister on the same day. Since then, bilateral relations have developed smoothly.

China's Premier Li Qiang and Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki discuss on how to enrich the Strategic Partnership between the two countries.

Q : President Isaias conducted a state visit to the PRC end of last month. What significance will it have in the diplomatic relations between the two countries?

President Isaias’ state visit is his sixth trip to China. His Excellency met with his counterpart President Xi Jinping, and the Chinese Premier Li Qiang. They held extensive talks on the enhancement of strategic bilateral ties and regional matters.

China regards Eritrea as a good partner and comrade from a strategic and long-term perspective. As Eritrea always sticks to an independent foreign policy, under current international circumstances, further developing our friendship not only serves the common interests of the two nations but also means a lot to regional peace and international equity and justice.

Q : Mr. Ambassador, how has China’s relationship with Eritrea evolved over the past three decades, and what role has diplomacy played in this relationship?

Over the past 30 years, China and Eritrea have always trusted and supported each other. The two countries hold the same or similar views on many international issues, China firmly supports Eritrea in safeguarding its sovereignty and security, and in exploring home-grown solutions to development. We both oppose external interference in our internal affairs and the imposition of unilateral sanctions. We have been working together in various fields of economy, trade, culture, health, education, etc. China has been Eritrea’s largest partner of trade and investor for many years in a row. More importantly, the bilateral relations were elevated to a strategic partnership.

The bilateral relations between China and Eritrea were elevated to a strategic partnership.
“More importantly, the bilateral relations are now elevated to a strategic partnership.” – Ambassador Shu Zhan

Q : What have been some of the most notable projects or initiatives undertaken by China in Eritrea during your time as ambassador?

In three and half years of my posting, the bilateral trade volume had quadrupled, from 8.5 million to about 35 million US dollars a year. China had helped to build two Complex Teaching Buildings for the College of Arts & Social Sciences in Adi-Keih, and two primary schools in Mendefera and Ghinda respectively with Chinese aid, as well as upgraded telecommunications project and a cement plant in the Southern Red Sea region with concessional loans from Export-Import Bank of China.

In addition to the regular services of the Chinese medical team, we brought in the first batch of young volunteers, with 7 young men in agricultural demonstration projects and 3 girls teaching sports such as table tennis and women’s football. These are some of the few programs that I can remember.

Q : Your impression of Eritrea during your stay from 2006-2009?

I admire most of the Eritrean people’s independence and self-reliance from grassroots to leadership, as well as their diligence, hard work, and resilience. Of course, there is also beautiful scenery such as “Three Seasons in Two Hours” and many more.

During my tenure as the Chinese Ambassador to Eritrea from 2006-2009, one of the visits that left a surreal experience was traveling to Nakfa. Seeing the long stretches of trenches connected with each other was amazing. The hospitals and factories built during the Eritrean armed struggle in and around Nakfa provided a glimpse into how this town served as the cradle of the armed struggle.

Traveling along the eastern coast of Nakfa towards Maihimet was an eye-opening experience. The historically rich country has a lot of artifacts and monuments dating back thousands of years ago. It’s a reminder that the Red Sea coastlines of Eritrea used to be one of the main trade routes. The historical significance of the area cannot be missed.

My travels to the western part of the country, bordering Sudan, highlighted the numerous irrigated farmlands growing cotton and other commercial crops. during a one-week fact-finding working trip together with three Ministers in 2007 to Eritrea’s coastal areas, including Massawa, the Dalul Depression, Dessie Island in the Dahlak Islands, and coastlines along Berasole on the way to Assab, was a mesmerizing experience. It showcased how Eritrea’s coastlines are pristine and have vast potential in the blue economy. Overall, my tenure in Eritrea was enriched by these experiences and left a lasting impression on me.

Q : Looking ahead, what areas do you see as having the greatest potential for further cooperation between Eritrea and China?

Leaders of our two countries have been discussing investment and development cooperation for agriculture, processing industries, coastal development, blue economy, digital economy, mining, education, health and human capacity development and etc. The key is to advance mutually beneficial cooperation and achieve joint development through various frameworks and platforms, such as the Belt and Road Initiative, the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation, and the Outlook on Peace and Development in the Horn of Africa.

With China promoting the Chinese path to modernization and high-quality opening-up, there will be more opportunities for cooperation and development between China and Eritrea, as well as other African countries in creating a Community with a Shared Future for China and Africa.

Q : Finally, on the occasion of Eritrea’s 32nd Independence Day, what message would you like to share with the Eritrean people?

When I left office in July 2009, President Isaias gave me a piece of art as a souvenir he made himself, sculpting a speedy train. I think it symbolizes the continuous progress and perseverance of the Eritrean people in the past 32 years of hard-working, aiming high in a focused way.

Thank you, Ambassador Shu.