MERICS China Essentials
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China seeks to shore up friendships in Africa

The facts: Beijing has kicked off a new year of diplomacy by sending its top diplomat to Africa. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi wrapped up the week-long tour of the continent on Saturday, concluding state visits to Nigeria, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Botswana, Tanzania, and the Seychelles. During the tour Wang signed memoranda of understanding on the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) with the DRC and Botswana.

What to watch: In a smooth and carefully orchestrated tour, Wang largely stuck to approved talking points including Covid-19 vaccines, economic recovery, and “transformative development” – three narratives that he had previously outlined in an interview given to Xinhua and which will be the focus of this year’s Forum on China Africa Cooperation summit in Senegal. With many in Africa feeling that rich countries are selfishly guarding access to Covid-19 vaccines, Beijing has an opportunity to strengthen friendships by providing access to Chinese vaccines. Wang fell short of addressing the ongoing African debt crisis that will also define foreign relations with African countries going forward into 2021.

MERICS analysis: Anticipating competition from a more internationally engaged Biden administration, Beijing is seeking a head start by shoring up ties with developing country partners. Beijing’s new white paper on “International Development Cooperation” makes explicit the centrality of “South-South” cooperation and China-Africa relations to Chinese foreign policy. In order to translate the friendly rhetoric that accompanied Wang’s tour into reality, it will be important that Beijing makes good on promises to provide access to Chinese vaccines and to deliver sustainable economic recovery through the BRI amid scaled back loan commitments.

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This article first appeared in the January 14, 2021 issue of MERICS China Briefing.