Is it just semantics or just misrepresentation?
Eritrea is often labeled by journalists and governments as a regional aggressor (here1 and here2). The most often cited evidence for this designation is that Eritrea has been engaged in conflict with each of its contiguous neighbors as well as an overseas state. Ironically however, its neighbor to the south, Ethiopia has had border conflicts with four of its six neighbors, has occupied two of them in the past two decades and has actively fomented insurgencies in its neighbors. Superficially they both seem to be aggressive nations but as we know, nothing is as simple as it seems.
The nature of Eritrea’s conflicts with its neighbors and Ethiopia’s are wholly different. Eritrea’s conflicts have been a result of poorly defined borders inherited from its colonial era. Ethiopia’s conflicts have been the result of its intent to be the regional hegemon. To understand Eritrea’s border issues you must first understand how the state of Eritrea was established. Italy officially established the colony in 1890 (after in 1889 Ethiopia recognized in the Treaty of Uccialli, that it did not hold sovereignty of Eritrea) however Italy started establishing its presence first in Asseb (in the south) and then moved up to Massawa (central coast). From Massawa Italy moved west to what would be the Eritrean capital, Asmara.
From there Italy and Britain signed an agreement delimiting the boundary between the Sudan and Eritrea on 15 April 1891. From 1895 to 1896 Italy waged a war against Ethiopia in which Ethiopia was able to hold its ground against Italian incursions. This resulted in a series of Treaties between Italy and Ethiopia which guaranteed Eritrea’s border with Ethiopia, in 1900, 1902 and 1908. Each of these treaties laid out the border between the two states in uncertain terms, as the Eritrea-Ethiopia Boundary Commission eventually concluded after it virtually demarcated the border.
Eritrea’s border with Djibouti is similarly defined by treaty (this time between France and Italy in 1900 and 1935) and thus clear. When these boundaries have been infringed upon Eritrea has reacted boldly by standing up to the party, first with words, and if they do not abate, with force of arms. Such seemingly extreme action must be understood by the fact that Eritrea does not have a client relationship with a larger state and it is nominally understood that, “Small states living in a very dangerous neighborhood require a special relationship from the United States (read: powerful nation).”3 It is clear then that Eritrea must be stern and unwavering to prevent being treated by its larger neighbors (Sudan, Ethiopia, Yemen) as a trivial state who can be trifled with.
Unlike Eritrea, Ethiopia is an 80 million strong elephant in the room. Its burgeoning population, exploding over the past century, has fought several internal conflicts, fought four interstate wars and has even been accused of genocide as well as the use of banned weapons. Of course some may argue that this was all in the past and this is a new day for the region which Eritrea continues to darken. Unfortunately, this is simply not the case as Ethiopia continues its oppression of its entire western region with martial law, while it has renewed its occupation of Somalia and of course after an international commission determined its border with Eritrea, it continues to violate the decision (not to mention its agreement in 2000 with Eritrea).
Clearly the facts are incontrovertible, Ethiopia’s behavior of aggression paint it clearly as the regional aggressor. Similarly Eritrea’s self-defense of its borders based in treaty appear to characterize it as a cactus pear, if approached aggressively, it will reply in kind, though if approached with respect, its sweet fruit is borne.