- While being increasingly isolated by the West and Africa, the Eritrean government lays its trust in enhanced trade and cooperation with China and Iran. Trade with these new partners however remains small and ties do not represent much more that courtesy.
High-level delegation from China and Iran have visited the Eritrean capital Asmara this week, with an aim of deepening bilateral ties. Eritrean President Issaias Afewerki has put great prestige in seeking alternative trade partners after he severed ties with Western countries.
Today, Eritrea's Minister of Land, Water and Environment, Woldemichael Gebremariam, held discussion with visiting Chinese investors. According to the Asmara Ministry of Information, talks focused on questions put forward by the investors "regarding the condition of Eritrean water resources, soil and environmental fertility."
The only concrete result of the Chinese delegation's visit to Asmara however seems to be a possible investment the development of cotton cultivation in the dry Horn country, which was discussed with President Afewerki in person. China, which totally dominates the world's textile industry, is keen on getting more control over cotton production.
While President Afewerki is hoping for privileged relation with China, trade has so far only been to China's benefit. Only in 2006, China’s exports to Eritrea increased by 369 percent. While China's export value to Eritrea that year amounted to US$ 37,7 million, Eritrean exports to China were only worth US$ 720,000. As long as no strategic minerals or oil are found in Eritrea, China is not likely to give Asmara the special ties it hopes for.
Meanwhile, yesterday an Iranian government delegation also was received by President Afewerki. The President afterwards said that the delegation’s visit was in line with the talks he held with senior Iranian government officials during his recent official visit to that country.
However, no concrete results seem to have emerged from that meeting either. President Afewerki since late 2006 - shortly after calling the US Eritrea's "arch-enemy" - has tried to build a close relation to Iran, however without much more to show to than a large number of high-level meetings. Not even the December 2006 goal of exchanging embassies has been reached.
Also in the case of Iran, Eritrea has been forced to act as the minor partner, even prompting the Asmara government to declare support for Iran's controversial nuclear programme.
President Afewerki had hoped to get a privileged access to Iran's oil exports, but must still see most imports coming from pro-Western states in the Arabian Peninsula. Even more annoying, the trade volume between Iran and Eritrea's sworn enemy Ethiopia is much greater and important than that with Asmara, contributing to the neutrality of Iran in the Ethio-Eritrean conflict.
Even if important mineral deposits or oil was to be found in Eritrea, trade would not automatically be channelled to President Afewerki's preferred partners. The Asmara government has handed out most concession to risk-friendly Western companies.
Therefore, investments in Eritrea's potentially rich mining sector are still dominated by Western companies. Commercial copper, zinc and lead sulphides are mined by Canada-based Lundin Mining Corporation, while the many promising gold deposits are bought up by Australian, Canadian and South African firms. The small-scale oil explorations off Eritrea's coast have so far been dominated by minor US companies.
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