China to Visit Africa First for 30th Year in Row, Signaling Priority in Ties

China’s top diplomat will travel to five African countries next year for his first trip abroad, continuing a three-decade tradition in which Beijing has prioritized the continent in its public diplomacy.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin confirmed during a press conference Wednesday in Beijing that Foreign Minister Wang Yi would head to Africa. China’s most senior diplomat was set to travel to Nigeria, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Botswana, Tanzania and Seychelles from January 4 through 9.

“Since 1991, Africa has been the destination for the Chinese foreign minister’s first overseas visit each year,” Wang Wenbin said. “State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s visit this time is a continuation of this fine tradition, which demonstrates the high importance China attaches to its relationship with Africa.”

He highlighted joint work between China and Africa in battling the novel coronavirus pandemic, which has hampered much international travel and disrupted life across the globe.

“Since the outbreak of COVID-19, China and Africa have worked in solidarity to fight against the epidemic, a testament to our brotherhood,” Wang Wenbin added. “This visit also shows China’s sincerity and determination in deepening friendly relations with African countries in the post-COVID era.”

The disease was first detected in the central Chinese city of Wuhan but has since spread worldwide, infecting around 82.5 million people and killing 1.8 million. China saw a relatively speedy recovery but others, especially in the West, continue to suffer the worst of the illness.

African countries, on the other hand, have fared comparatively well, with only one country—South Africa—registering more than a million cases, and just several others just topping 100,000.

Mutual successes are paving the way for what Wang Wenbin called further promotion of the “traditional friendship between China and Africa” as they now enter this “post-COVID era,” a period that seems some time away for much of the rest of the world.

New Year’s Day will mark the beginning of the final year for target goals laid out by the 2018 Forum on China–Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) summit. All 54 countries of Africa have participated in the group with the exception of Eswatini, the tiny landlocked nation once known as Swaziland, whose leader became the first head of state to die of COVID-19 while in office earlier this month.

FOCAC held an extraordinary summit in June in order to address the COVID-19 pandemic, during which Chinese President Xi Jinping vowed that “China will continue to do whatever it can to support Africa’s response to COVID-19.” Beyond COVID-19 cooperation, decades-long cooperation between China and Africa is rooted in a variety of ties embodied by growing economic and political relations.

Mark Akpaninyie, co-founder of the Black China Caucus, told Newsweek that the Chinese foreign minister’s decision to choose Africa for his first stop next year “is hardly a surprise for many Sinologists, as China maintains quite a large political and economic presence throughout Africa, and the trip emphasizes the importance the Chinese Communist Party places on the continent.”

The Black China Caucus seeks to amplify Black expert voices on the subject of China and its role in international affairs. He said Chinese engagement with African countries has produced tangible results.

“Playing a central role in the implementation of China’s foreign policy objectives, China has witnessed remarkable growth in its trade and investment in many African countries since the turn of the century,” Akpaninyie said. “China and African leaders participate in triennial summits that regularly culminate in millions of dollars in pledges of assistance, loans, and other forms of economic engagement.”

China has granted up to $178 billion in loans to 52 African nations over the past two decades, according to the School of Advanced and International Studies’ China Africa Research Initiative. Many of these investments have been organized in line with the intercontinental Belt and Road Initiative, a global series of infrastructure and energy projects declared by Xi in 2013.

“China’s trillion dollar infrastructure initiative has also gained a foothold on the continent as many African leaders try to secure a project along the Belt and Road Initiative,” Akpaninyie told Newsweek. “While China looks to continue this tradition, its diplomatic prioritization of Africa is needed to ensure its longstanding ties with the continent remain strong.”

China has also expanded its military footprint in Africa since then, opening its first overseas base in Djibouti—where other countries such as the United States and France have a presence as well—three years ago. China is the second-largest financial donor and among the top 10 international troop contributors to United Nations peacekeeping missions, deploying around 2,500 personnel to nine missions, including those in Africa.

But China’s presence in Africa has been controversial for some, eliciting criticism both within Africa and abroad.

“Amid growing criticism about its handling of COVID-19, ongoing anti-black discrimination and alleged mistreatment of African immigrants in China, the sustainability of its lending practices, and allegations of corruption, China has witnessed a fresh wave of anti-Chinese sentiment on the continent in 2020,” Akpaninyie said.

While this issue was not new, he predicted potential impact on the thriving ties between China and Africa should the trend worsen.

“Anti-Chinese sentiment is not a new development, as it has been an enduring feature of China-Africa relations,” he said. “However, the increasing backlash against China may downgrade its comfortable standing as an all-weather economic and diplomatic partner to many countries in Africa. Whether these concerns will transform China’s relationships with African nations, only time will tell.”

One relationship that has deteriorated is that between China and its top international competitor, the U.S., which has increasingly warned African countries away from Chinese capital.

Under President Donald Trump, Washington has adopted a hard line against Beijing, accusing its leadership of exploitative economic and trade practices.

“Unfortunately, PRC investments often consist of opaque loans made by PRC state-owned banks disbursed to PRC contractors, for projects that do not allow any non-PRC bidders,” a State Department spokesperson recently told Newsweek. “The United States offers a positive alternative. Our transparent, private sector-driven model comes with a proven track record for delivering sustainable growth, reducing poverty, and fostering technological innovation.”

U.S. companies have also invested hundreds of billions of dollars in Africa since 2000, and the State Department issued a new push in October to accelerate the Africa Prosper Initiative first announced in June of last year to increase U.S. investment into Africa.

Since its inception, the program claims to have closed more than 280 deals, surpassing $22 billion in more than 30 countries and 25 business sectors.

Concerns over China’s interactions with Africa played prominently in this year’s annual United States-China Economic and Security Review Commission report to Congress published earlier this month.

“Over the last two decades, China has reinvigorated its longstanding ties to African countries, placing the continent squarely at the center of its ambitions to become a global political and economic leader,” the report, which was obtained by Newsweek, read.

In addition to leveraging its economic ambitions, the report said that the ruling Chinese Communist Party “has used the influence it gains from its political engagement with African countries to enlist African support for its geopolitical objectives, diminishing the impact of U.S. diplomacy in African countries and in the international system.”

The report was described by its authors as the first of its kind to describe China “surpassing” the U.S. in economic, diplomatic, technological and military fields rather than just “catching up.” It also accused China of a number of abuses in a quest to lead the international order, and recommended a range of tougher U.S. measures meant to monitor Chinese activities abroad and restrict the country’s access to U.S. markets.

In remarks sent to Newsweek at the time by Beijing’s embassy in Washington, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying called the report “ideologically biased against China.”

“There is no factual basis for the vilification and smear of China in various reports it has fabricated,” Hua said earlier this month. “Some people in the United States cannot extricate themselves from the Cold War and zero-sum game thinking. All that meet their eyes are conspiracies, pitfalls and threats.”

China overtook the U.S. as Africa’s top trading partner in 2009, and the People’s Republic has managed to duplicate that success in the West, surpassing the U.S. as the European Union’s top trading partner earlier this year.

In yet another sign of China’s rising economic clout—and yet another stub to U.S. warnings—China and the EU signed a landmark investment agreement, even as the incoming administration of President-elect Joe Biden sought early talks ahead of the deal’s finalization.

Hua said the latest win for China was also a win for the world.

“The agreement will provide greater market access, better business environment, stronger institutional protection and brighter cooperation prospects for two-way investment,” she tweeted. “It also represents a key contribution by China & the EU—two vast markets—to building an open world economy.”