China’s newly appointed foreign minister Qin Gang completed a weeklong trip to Africa, which took him to five countries, namely Angola, Ethiopia, Benin, Gabon and Egypt, from Jan 8 to 16. Qin was following in the footsteps of his predecessors who for the past 32 years have made it a norm to visit Africa at the start of each year to strengthen and set the agenda for Sino-African relations.
The first of such trips that set the beginning of what has become a tradition saw then foreign minister Qian Qichen visit Africa in 1991 to cement relations between his country and the continent in the context of a geopolitical environment that was in a state of flux.
These trips have helped set the tone for China-Africa relations and paved the way for the phenomenal all-round growth in the relationship between the two sides. While at the time of Qian’s visit in 1991 Sino-African trade totaled just under $1 billion, Qin’s trip comes at a time when trade between the two parties reached a record $260 billion in 2022, marking China’s 13th consecutive year as Africa’s largest trading partner. Perhaps there is no stronger symbol of the thriving relationship than the exponential growth of trade over the past three decades.
The 2021 Forum on China-Africa Cooperation committed to removing trade barriers and also increasing the amount of Africa’s exports to China to $300 billion in the next three years. Moreover, in December, China added nine more African countries to the list of countries whose products can access the Chinese market on a duty-free basis.
This move will stimulate investment and economic growth in the concerned countries while further increasing trade between China and Africa. The Dakar Action Plan (2022-24) also emphasized the important role of investment in Africa’s economic transformation and growth. China is already one of the biggest sources of bilateral foreign direct investment in Africa with FDI inflow from the Asian giant averaging about $2.45 billion per year between 2003 and 2019.
Chinese investments go to different sectors, namely mining, manufacturing, communications and infrastructure among others. In the Dakar Action Plan (2022-24), China pledged to direct $10 billion worth of investments to Africa over the next three years. Hence, Qin’s visit is a perfect opportunity to follow up on the investment pledge. Chinese investments in the continent create tens of thousands of jobs while also contributing to the transformation of Africa’s economy.
Qin’s visit also serves to reassure and reinforce the China-Africa solidarity and friendship in the midst of rising geopolitical tensions, a global pandemic, a rapidly changing global economy and the threat of climate change. During his visit to Ethiopia, the minister opened the new state-of-the-art Africa Center for Disease Control and Prevention headquarters that were donated by the Chinese government.
The headquarters will form the technical nerve center of the continental institution’s surveillance and prevention of diseases and future pandemics in the continent. The new building is a concrete expression of Sino-African solidarity in the face of the deadly COVID-19 pandemic. It underscores China’s willingness and preparedness to partner with Africa on any pressing issue even as it battles the pandemic on its own shores.
China’s behavior is in direct contrast with that of other major powers such as the United States, the United Kingdom, and the European Union which isolated the continent at the peak of the pandemic and even imposed travel bans on South Africa after scientists there discovered a new COVID-19 variant.
The pandemic exposed the bias of the global order whose reform China and Africa have consistently called for. Hence, China and Africa will have to work together in global platforms such as the United Nations, the World Trade Organization and the climate change conferences to promote strategic mutual interests.
It was at the UN General Assembly in 1971 that African countries played an important role in getting the People’s Republic of China back to the UN. The importance of these platforms in the pursuit of mutual interests and in shaping the global norms cannot be downplayed.
Further, Qin’s trip comes barely a month after US President Joe Biden hosted African leaders in Washington during the US-Africa Leaders Summit in December. It also comes about five months after his US counterpart, Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, embarked on an African tour during which he delivered the US Strategy Toward Sub-Saharan Africa. The strategy document unduly describes China as a negative influence in Africa.
This has led many to view Qin’s trip in the context of the so-called US-China competition for the African sphere of influence. However, Qin was quick to dismiss such views saying that Africa should not be an arena of competition between major powers. Indeed, China’s history of cooperation with Africa is proof that China is not in Africa to compete with the US or any other country for influence.
China’s presence in Africa began when the Chinese economy was no match for the US. Beijing doubled down on its cooperation with Africa even as the US was increasingly becoming disinterested in the continent, especially in the early 2000s.
This goes to show that China’s presence and activities in Africa had and still have little to do with the US. Instead, China’s Africa policy has been guided by key principles such as respect for sovereignty, mutual benefit, equality and win-win relationships and not some external factor. Hence, to characterize Qin’s trip as China’s move within the context of its competition with the US is misleading and baseless. It would be counterproductive for both Africa and China if their relations were determined by the whims of US foreign policy.
Monyae is an associate professor of international relations and political science for the Centre for Africa-China Studies at the University of Johannesburg. The article first appeared in the China Daily.