For the past 30 years, China has kept up a tradition of sending its foreign minister to Africa for his first trip of the new year. Despite the complications of the pandemic, which has curtailed many overseas trips for diplomats around the world, this is one tradition China is keeping. On January 4, Foreign Minister Wang Yi departed for a five-country tour that will take him to Nigeria, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Botswana, Tanzania, and the Seychelles.
“During this visit, State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi will hold in-depth exchange and coordination with African countries, promote implementation of the important consensus reached by President Xi Jinping and African leaders and the outcomes of the FOCAC Beijing Summit and the Extraordinary China-Africa Summit on Solidarity against COVID-19, support African countries in combating the virus and achieving economic recovery, advance BRI cooperation, and build a closer China-Africa community with a shared future,” Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying said in a press briefing on January 4.
The COVID-19 pandemic – including disease prevention, treatment, and vaccine distribution – and the associated economic devastation has, unsurprisingly, become the primary focus of China-Africa cooperation over the past year. As Hua referenced in her statement above, Chinese President Xi Jinping held a virtual summit with 13 African leaders, as well as the chair of the African Union Commission, focused on COVID-19 in June 2020.
In addition, China sent medical teams to Africa, provided medical supplies, and promised to give African countries priority access to an eventual Chinese vaccine. In December in Ethiopia, a ground-breaking ceremony was held for the headquarters of the African Centers for Disease Control, an $80 million construction project bankrolled by China.
On the economic side, “China has signed debt service suspension agreements with 12 African countries and provided waivers of matured interest-free loan for 15 African countries,” Wang told Xinhua in an interview this week. Those agreements are vague and opaque, however, and debt payments to China remain an issue of concern for countries like Kenya, Zambia, and Angola. Meanwhile, the primary platform for China-Africa engagement – the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) – celebrated its 20th anniversary in 2020, although the pandemic put a damper on commemoration events.
Overall, the China-Africa “friendship emerged still stronger from the test of COVID-19 in 2020,” Wang proclaimed.
2021 is off to a promising start as well. Aside from Wang’s visit, on January 1 the China-Mauritius free trade agreement (FTA) entered into force. That deal, signed in October 2019, marks China’s first FTA with an African country. Its entry into force coincided with the launch of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA), potentially heightening the impact of the China-Mauritius pact (although current tight restrictions on Rules of Origin may hinder this linkage). According to analysts, China is likely looking to use its FTA with Mauritius as a model for future agreements with other African countries.
Meanwhile, the next FOCAC summit will be held in Senegal this year. The event, which takes place once every three years and brings together the heads of state from China and 50-plus African countries, is the highlight of China-Africa cooperation. This year’s summit will focus on “three priority areas of vaccine cooperation, economic recovery, and transformative development,” according to Wang. His visits this week will help lay the groundwork for concrete commitments in those areas.
There is one area where African leaders may be disappointed, however: We are not likely to see a huge jump in Chinese money offered to Africa. Chinese pledges made at FOCAC ballooned from $5 billion in 2006 to $60 billion in 2015, but then for the first time stayed at that level for the Beijing FOCAC summit in 2018. The level of promised funding may actually drop this year. Chinese lending and grants have ebbed in recent years, reaching new lows amid the turmoil of the COVID-19 pandemic.
As Deborah Brautigam, director of the China-Africa Research Initiative at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, D.C. put it in a recent interview with The Diplomat, “FOCAC set up high expectations that Beijing would continually expand its pledges of aid, loans, and other forms of economic engagement. These have been tempered in recent years as pledges plateaued.”
While it’s often left unspoken amid a preferred focus on economic cooperation, China will also be expecting diplomatic support from Africa – particularly as frictions with the United States continue into 2021. In comments to Vanguard News Nigeria, Wang spoke of “the important mission of strengthening international cooperation and safeguarding common interests between China and Africa.”
“Nowadays, the world is becoming less peaceful, especially in recent years, unilateralism and power politics prevailed, the Cold War mentality is overflowing,” Wang said. “…There is an urgent need to strengthen communication and coordination between China and Africa, reveal the power of solidarity, send a common voice, safeguard the legitimate rights of the Chinese and African people to oppose outside interference, pursue fairness and justice, and lead a better life.” In other words, China will be seeking more vocal support from African governments on international issues.
Wang started his five-country tour in Abuja, Nigeria on January 4, and headed to Kinshasa in the DRC the next day. He will return to China on January 9.