Belay told Xinhua that Beijing and Addis Ababa are on a path to agreeing on a long-term partnership ranging from training programs for Ethiopian space engineers to assisting Ethiopia with launching space satellites and setting up a continental satellite data receiver station.
Beijing and Addis Ababa are still at the discussion table with regards to the continental satellite receiver station. However, Belay revealed that the plan is to realize the project in the next three years.
Belay added that the continental satellite data receiving station will be ideally placed to disseminate information to various African countries since Ethiopia’s capital Addis Ababa is home to the African Union (AU) Headquarter.
China’s growing influence in Africa is witnessing a new facet as Beijing expands its diplomatic relations in Africa not only on Earth but also in space. Sino-African space cooperation is growing rapidly as with other Chinese advances on the continent.
Last December, China helped Ethiopia launch its first satellite into space by providing USD 6 million grant, trained 21 Ethiopian engineers on the project and helped blast the satellite into orbit.
In a separate interview after the launch of Ethiopia’s first satellite, Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Geng Shuang told the Chinese media that funding Ethiopia’s ETRSS-1 satellite is embodied in Beijing’s “fruitful cooperation” of which space and aviation are emerging and important areas.
Shuang said: “The satellite launched for Ethiopia is a project under China’s climate change South-South cooperation aimed to help Ethiopia with research in climate change response and agriculture and boost economic and social progress.”
Ethiopia is not the only African country to have received China’s development aid to acquire space assets in recent time.
Beijing and Cairo signed a USD 72 million grant for Egypt’s space programme on 21 January 2019, which is the third grant provided by China to Egypt for a satellite project. Both countries initially signed a grant of USD 23 million given in 2016, and a second grant worth USD 45 million provided in 2018.
China is also supporting Egypt to construct a satellite development centre comprising of assembly, integration and test (AIT) facilities and ground station facilities in which scientists and engineers from China and Egypt will jointly complete the assembly, integration and test of Egypt’s China-funded MisrSat II Earth observation satellite.
According to the Chinese Ambassador to Egypt, Liao Liqiang, the first milestone in Cairo-Beijing space cooperation is that Egypt is the first country to carry out satellite cooperation with China under the framework of the Belt and Road Initiative.
Well, China is not the only foreign power advancing bilateral cooperations with African nations beyond Earth. France, the European Union, Russia and Japan are other active leaders of bilateral space cooperation on the continent while India and Ukraine have recorded significant success as well.
However, most bilateral space cooperations on the continent are transactional since African governments pay for services rendered or for satellites acquired, sometimes with concessional loans as with the case of Nigeria’s acquisition of its first communications satellite with concessional loans from China’s ExIm Bank and Angola’s acquisition of AngolSat-1 with loans from a consortium of Russian banks.
Similarly, Ethiopia has revealed plans to commence the construction of its satellite manufacturing, assembly, integration and test centre (MAIT) starting this January in collaboration French company ArianeGroup and with funding from the European Investment Bank.
Meanwhile, giving grants for space assets such as satellites as seen in China’s funding for Ethiopia’s ERTSS-1 and Egypt’s MisrSat II satellites is a model that is seemingly unique to Beijing’s diplomatic aid to Africa.
Joseph Ibeh is a Mandela Washington Fellow and Senior Analyst at Space in Africa. His experience spans industry research and market analysis with a focus on African-grown NewSpace companies, commercial space industry, national space programmes and real-life application of space science for sustainable development in Africa.