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China and appreciating Africa’s foreign policy priorities

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China’s Foreign Minister Qin Gang addresses delegates at the inauguration of the new Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention headquarters, which China is building and equipping in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, January 11, 2023. REUTERS/Tiksa Negeri

By David Monyae

The newly appointed Chinese Foreign Minister, Qin Gang, is currently embarking on his first African tour which will take him to five countries namely Ethiopia, Gabon, Angola, Benin, and Egypt. The choice of the countries signal China’s willingness to extend its cooperation with Africa beyond its major partners such as Egypt, South Africa, Ethiopia, and Angola among others to include even smaller states like Gabon and Benin.

His trip is a continuation of a 32-year old tradition which has seen China’s top diplomat visiting Africa at the beginning of each year. Qin Gang, who until his appointment late in December was China’s ambassador to the United States is now tasked with steering China’s foreign policy whose scope has become genuinely global. Despite a highly uncertain geopolitical environment, Africa and China have maintained a steadfast relationship which has grown in leaps and bounds over the last two decades.

Salient issues such as trade, investment, the Covid-19 pandemic, the Russia-Ukraine conflict, UN reform, and global inflation surge are likely to take centre stage in Qin’s discussions with his hosts. One of the main highlights of the Minister’s tour which is also a strong symbol of the Sino-African relationship has been the commissioning of the new headquarters of the Africa Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC) which was donated by the Chinese government.

The headquarters were built in response to the Covid-19 pandemic and are meant to help the continent better coordinate its approach to future pandemics. This goes to show that the relationship between the two parties is anchored on concrete and not just high-sounding empty words. Of course, the world is still fighting the Covid-19 pandemic.

China itself has had to deal with a spike in infections among its population. Hence, Qin’s deliberations with the leaders of the countries he will visit will also include an exchange of ideas on how to effectively prevent and combat health emergencies.

Economic cooperation will loom large in the course of Qin’s visit. China and Africa have enjoyed a thriving trade relationship which saw trade between the two sides rising 35 percent in 2021 from 2020 to US$254 billion maintaining China’s position as Africa’s largest trading partner. If the 23% year-on-year increase in China-Africa trade in the first quarter of 2022 is any indicator, overall trade between the two parties is expected to have grown from 2021. At the beginning of December 2022, China granted 9 more African nations tariff-free access to the Chinese market for 8800 products.

The number of African countries enjoying preferential access to the Chinese market now stands at 18. This is part of Beijing’s efforts to realize the commitment it made during the 2021 Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) to increase Africa’s exports to China to a massive US$300 billion. As such, Qin and his counterparts will seek to find ways of boosting their countries’ trade ties. One hopes that these discussions will not only focus on the quantity of trade but on its quality as well.

The bulk of Africa’s exports is low-value primary commodities. It is important that Africa undertakes socio-economic transformation which will see it participate more and more in the lucrative and advanced parts of the global value chains. Africa’s industrial transformation was one of the main themes of the 2021 FOCAC Action Plan where China pledged to help boost the continent’s industrial capacity.

If successful, industrial transformation will move Africa up in the global value chain, absorb millions of unemployed young people and significantly reduce the poverty levels in the continent. This is linked to another important issue that will be up for discussion during Qin’s visit: investment. China is one of the biggest bilateral sources of foreign direct investment (FDI) in Africa. Between 2000 and 2019 the average FDI inflow from China was over US$4 billion. The investment is directed to critical infrastructure projects such as transport, communication and water and sanitation among others.

In the 2021 FOCAC Action Plan, China pledged to invest US$10 billion across Africa in the three years before the next FOCAC in 2024. Therefore, the investment will be one of the main topics in the minister’s discussions. It is also an opportunity to follow up on the progress made on the investment pledge.

Minister Qin’s trip comes a few months after the visit of his US equivalent, the Secretary of State Anthony Blinken in August 2022. Blinken also presented the US Strategy Towards Sub-Saharan Africa in Pretoria, South Africa. The visit also comes barely a month after the US-Africa Leaders’ Summit held in Washington in December.

The strategy presented by Blinken in his tour criticised China’s role in Africa portraying it as a negative influence. The US’s critical view of China’s presence in the continent led many to believe that the world’s two biggest economies were competing for Africa’s sphere of influence. This perception of US-China competition for influence in Africa is set to be intensified when Chinese President Xi Jinping and US President Joe Biden visit the continent later this year. However, Minister Qin addressed this perception during the first leg of his tour in Ethiopia. He rightly argued that Africa should not be an arena for major power competition but a space for international cooperation.

Qin has perhaps avoided visiting any of the countries visited by his American counterpart last August in part to avoid perceptions of competition. Nonetheless, Africa’s relationships with other major powers are important to China as this shapes the continent’s position on international issues. The continent carries a numerical advantage as a voting bloc in multilateral institutions such as the United Nations (UN), World Trade Organization (WTO) and the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).

China and Africa have cooperated on these platforms in defence of mutual strategic interests. It will be one of Minister Qin’s priorities to ensure that Africa and China remain on the same wavelength with regard to international issues. His first tour in Africa will however be a learning curve for him. It will give him a feel and an appreciation for Africa’s foreign policy priorities and help him strategize on how best to engage the continent.