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Africa: What does Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi’s tour signify?

By Cobus van Staden
Posted on Wednesday, 12 January 2022 12:54

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and his Kenyan counterpart Raychelle Omamo bump elbows during a news conference in the coastal city of Mombasa, Kenya January 6, 2022. REUTERS/Joseph Okanga

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi's visit to East Africa and the Indian Ocean region is not yet over, but it has already produced several interesting data points.

In the first place, Wang made an oblique reference to China’s willingness to develop Eritrea’s coast. This seems to chime with analysts’ predictions earlier this week that Wang’s visit combines a focus on the Indian Ocean with plans to cement China’s presence on the Red Sea. Wang didn’t explain what this development would entail, but any Chinese projects on the Eritrean coast would probably dovetail with China’s strong focus on the shipping routes in the region and its base across the border in Djibouti.

The choice of Eritrea also sent a signal about the ongoing conflict in Ethiopia. Eritrea-Ethiopia relations have markedly improved over the last few months, and Asmara isn’t only an active participant in the conflict, it also stands accused of war crimes. Wang (again, obliquely) repeated China’s standard criticism of US sanctions as an intervention in Ethiopian domestic affairs.

However, he also called on the countries making up the Horn of Africa to hold a peace conference to resolve the many conflicts in the region and pledged that China would provide ‘the necessary support’ for such an event.

This seems to cement East Africa as a space where China can bend its non-intervention policy to experiment with conflict mediation, echoing earlier efforts in the Sudan/South Sudan conflict. This was reinforced by his announcement, on his arrival in Kenya, that China will appoint a special envoy to the Horn of Africa. While he didn’t mention any details, it was interesting that the announcement came as the US special envoy to the Horn, Jeffrey Feltman, was visiting Addis Ababa.

The East African focus of Wang’s visit also highlights the role of other powers in the region. It’s been reported that Ethiopia’s recent victories against the Tigrayan rebel movement were partly due to drones purchased from China, Turkey, and the UAE. This will be Feltman’s last visit to the region in his current role, and it’s notable that his replacement will be David Satterfield, the outgoing US ambassador to Turkey, who was probably a key player in the Biden administration’s criticism of the Turkish drone sales late last year.

Wang’s announcement of a new Horn envoy sets up a duelling-envoys dynamic and highlights how much attention the conflicts in the Horn are now attracting on both sides. This can’t but affect Turkey, the UAE, and other regional powers’ own complicated relationships with the two superpowers.

Finally, Wang’s visit to Kenya seems to be walking a complicated line of trying to hype the significant Chinese infrastructure contributions to the country, while downplaying the equally significant debt generated by this infrastructure. The latter was achieved in a customary way, through interviews with Chinese experts in Global Times. While Wang was shown around a Chinese-built port expansion in Mombasa, aimed at facilitating the region’s oil exports, he was also careful to frame China’s pivot away from infrastructure loans as a pivot towards increased trade with the continent.

This was punctuated by the announcement that fresh Kenyan avocadoes will finally be allowed into the Chinese market. Those who’ve followed Africa-China trade will know that this seemingly minor concession is the result of years and years of African work.

Kenyan farmers have long struggled to jump all of China’s phytosanitary hoops. These included rules that the fruit had to be peeled and flash-frozen before import, an impossible demand for most producers. Wang’s announcement that this bar has been lowered seems to follow from increased trade commitments at FOCAC late last year and could signal a rapid escalation in agricultural trade over the next few years.

This article was published in partnership with The China-Africa Project. 

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