East Africa: Was China’s foreign minister’s visit a success or failure?

By Jade Scarfe
Posted on Wednesday, 19 January 2022 13:30

Chinese State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi holds talks with Comorian Foreign Minister Dhoihir Dhoulkamal in Moroni, Comoros, Jan. 6, 2022. (Xinhua/Dong Jianghui)

Last week, China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi concluded his tour of Eritrea, Kenya and Comoros – part of a 31-year-old tradition of Chinese foreign ministers visiting the continent for their first overseas trips in the new calendar year (or before the end of the lunar new year).

The political significance of the visit was different for the three countries. For Eritrea, Kenya and Comoros, the visit represented the third, fourth and first visit, respectively, from China’s leadership since 2007.

However, what was similar for all three countries was not China’s pulling away, as some argue, but instead, in each country, a ‘package’ of new announcements were made, setting the tone for what we can expect from Africa-China relations in 2022.

Indeed, the three visits were all about implementing the key commitments made at the China-Africa summit in Dakar in 2021, which took place just over a month prior to FM Wang Yi’s visit.

This ‘implementation’ is what we can expect for 2022 – more announcements around regional infrastructure, trade, health and, in some cases, peace and security.

Kenya: Trade, health, infrastructure

Let me explain – first using the Kenya portion of the trip, which included specific announcements on trade, health and regional infrastructure.

Why? The answer is FOCAC 2021. The trip included announcements on changes to China’s Sanitary and Phytosanitary standards to enable Kenya’s fresh avocados to enter China’s growing consumer market – which had previously been limited to just frozen avocados.

This was in line with a FOCAC 2021 commitment to open China’s market to African products with so-called ‘green lanes’ for African agricultural products.

This is a crucial development policy – as analysed elsewhere, 70% of Kenya’s avocado cultivation is by smallholder farmers, who did not have the capabilities to freeze avocados. The trip also included announcements on vaccines – Kenya secured 100 million doses, due in the first quarter of 2022, as part of the FOCAC commitment to provide 600 million donated doses.

Additionally, perhaps as a surprise to those promulgating ‘debt crisis’ or ‘debt trap’ theories, the trip also indicated positive shifts on regional infrastructure, with talks of expanding Kenya’s rail and port networks, including extending the Standard Gauge Rail (SGR) to four countries – Rwanda, Uganda, South Sudan, and the DRC.

This too is in line with a new FOCAC 2021 commitment to finance 10 regional infrastructure projects, which can be very expensive, but – especially with the AfCFTA and Covid-19 – are crucial to African economic growth prospects.

Eritrea: Finance, infrastructure, trade

Similarly, the Eritrea trip had a ‘package’ of commitments adapted to its situation. Eritrea remains one of the few countries across the world that has had very few cases of the coronavirus – hence the country has not started Covid-19 vaccinations. Consequently, a vaccine donation was not announced. Instead, Eritrea’s ministry of information stated that China would provide $15.7m in financial support, with agreements across infrastructure, mining and port developments (Massawa and Assab), which should also facilitate trade.

Furthermore, in line with FOCAC 2021 having a stronger emphasis on peace and security efforts in Eritrea, FM Wang Yi announced that a specific Horn of Africa special envoy post would be created – reflecting the agreed scaling up of this kind of engagement.

Comoros: Health

For Comoros, health topped the agenda, with Covid-19 vaccine commitments and promises to eliminate malaria by 2025. Even though these announcements were welcome, there is even more that could have been discussed: for instance, some initial talk in Kenya around joint production.

Bottom line

Kenya has significant vaccine production potential, with favourable policies to encourage pharmaceutical investment, which could serve the East Africa region and support Kenya’s goal to have fully-fledged vaccine manufacturing capability by 2024.

It would have been valuable to have an announcement of Chinese investment into supply chain infrastructure and value-addition processes for avocados and other agricultural products in Kenya and the region. However, the current announcements are still a positive development.

As for the Horn of Africa envoy post, though it is useful for coordinating China’s engagement and managing Chinese private sector investment risks in the region, there’s the argument that African countries, through the AU, should also appoint a special China envoy with a clear mandate to enhance cooperation.

That said, there is more time for ‘packages’ of announcements, in other African countries, to be designed to address these gaps and be tailored to their own needs.

Nevertheless, going forwards, for 2022, we can expect these kinds of packaged announcements, implementing the FOCAC 2021 commitments, to continue to other African countries and regions. The upshot – whether in peace and security, trade, regional infrastructure or health – is that the trips set a clear message that China-Africa relations are not diminishing.

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