China Raises its strategic profile in Horn of Africa and IOR
Amb Gurjit Singh

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi kept up the tradition of Chinese leaders visiting Africa at the beginning of the year. For 32 years, this tradition has been in vogue and the Chinese FM, between 4 and 7 January, visited Eritrea, Kenya and Comoros in the Indian Ocean. [1] It is significant that he kept this tradition despite having met most African Foreign Ministers five weeks earlier at the Forum of China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) in Senegal[2] following which he had also visited Ethiopia.

Between December 2021 and January 2022, the Chinese FM visited five African countries. In 2021 he had similarly made a visit to 5 African countries in January and covered Nigeria, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Botswana, Tanzania and the Seychelles.[3]

There are two significant aspects of these visits. The first is that as countries joined the Belt & Road Initiative (BRI), they merited a visit as part of the Chinese safari. In 2021, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Botswana, which were the 45th and 46th African countries to join the BRI, were visited. Nigeria and Seychelles which were on that tour had already joined the BRI in 2019 and 2018, respectively. This year, Eritrea was a new adherent to the BRI.

The other significant aspect is that now the Chinese FM includes an Indian Ocean country in his visit. In 2021 was the Seychelles and now Comoros, besides, Sri Lanka and Maldives in the current year.

One of the outcomes of the recent visit has been that China announced a Special Envoy for the Horn of Africa. This follows the similar announcements by the US, the EU and the African Union (AU) to deal with the crisis in Ethiopia and Sudan. Besides this political step, Wang Yi introduced an ‘Initiative of peaceful development in the Horn of Africa’.[4]

He received warm support from Kenya with whom he announced the initiative. China has been trying to avoid taking sides in the several civil conflicts in the Horn notably in Sudan, South Sudan and Ethiopia. It wants to be a part of reconstruction and connectivity. The initiative is for addressing challenges of security, development and governance.

Eritrea is likely to be a beneficiary of a BRI project in the near future. It suffers from US sanctions and in their joint statement China ‘opposed hegemonic interferences in the internal affairs of other countries under the pretext of democracy and human rights’.[5]

In Comoros China is seeking a bigger role and access to its facilities. China would be happy to assist Comoros in a comprehensive manner, but absorption capabilities of Comoros remain in doubt. Wang Yi offered to support the Comoros Emerging Plan for 2030 and ‘to work together with the Comoros to make the completed projects effective and provide assistance to the Comoros in promoting new projects after taking sufficient scientific verification and feasibility studies.’[6] 139 Chinese doctors work in Comoros, the Bambao-Mtsanga Hospital was built and Covid and malaria eradication are firm targets. ‘China has succeeded, since 1975, in promoting a culture of trust and in commanding respect and admiration in the Comoros without fanfare’ says the Al-Watwan newspaper.[7]

Of the three countries visited now, Kenya is the biggest beneficiary of cooperation with China. Oil terminal in Mombasa port, the Nairobi expressway on a PPP basis, the Mombasa-Nairobi railway are significant projects. While China emphasises their success, Kenya is more concerned with the cost of loan servicing obligations, which often raise questions about a debt trap.[8]

During the visit China pursued three objectives. First, offer greater support to fight the pandemic. Countries in Africa feel neglected and China offered vaccines and public health support. As part of FOCAC 1 billion vaccines were offered. 600 million willbe produced in Africa, while 400 million will be grants. The production aspects remain unclear.[9]

The second is to implement the multifarious decisions of FOCAC expeditiously and seek African cooperation for that.[10] The third aspect is to draw a separation from the US pursuit of democracy by emphasising that African countries should pursue their internal affairs in light of their own understanding. [11]

Democracy is not an issue in Eritrea, or Comoros, but Kenya will hold elections in 2022 and is often the butt of Western criticism for its elections not meeting expected standards. Normally, Wang Yi would not be expected to visit a country where the government is coming to the end of its term like in Kenya. However, China has much economic exposure in Kenya, which is causing discomfort and needs adjustment.

Kenya is a member of the UN Security Council at present, and the US is engaging Kenya to be a problem solver in the Horn of Africa. Engaging Kenya gives China space in the Horn of Africa, where they intend taking political and economic steps in a more confident manner to deal with the conflict-ridden region.

The visit to the Comoros makes the clear point that the Indian Ocean is an area where China would robustly engage and expand its strategic maritime interests. Wang Yi was not obliged to announce new projects per se because there was adequate leeway within the FOCAC proposals announced in December to cater to many African countries demands. These include providing access for African agricultural products to the Chinese market and to develop local products to be sold through Chinese e-commerce. Eritrea and Comoros are not great trading nations, but their strategic value for China is what is being enhanced.

In economic terms the 2021 choice of five countries was more substantive even though it occurred 11 months before the FOCAC in Dakar in December 2021. That tour had already announced cooperative efforts for sectors like health, agriculture, digital environment, strategic cooperation, regional connectivity and free trade.

While visiting Tanzania in 2021, China announced winning a contract of $1.3 billion to build the railway from Lake Victoria port Mwanza to Isaka near the port of Dar es Salaam. This came despite Tanzania cutting on down on several other Chinese projects over transparency and debt concerns. In Nigeria a joint commission had been established to calm down fears after anti-Chinese emotions became vociferous due to the treatment of Africans in Guangzhou. The Lagos- Ibadan railway has since been launched, [12] which connects Nigeria's economic hub of Lagos to the most populous city of Oyo State. Further, possibility of $5.3 billion loan to build the Ibadan-Kano railway is on the anvil.[13]

While visiting the DRC, Wang Yi had announced cancellation of $ 28 million of Congo's interest free loans something that they further developed at the FOCAC. At that time, $2 million was granted to Kinshasa to support its term as the Chair of the African Union. This year, Senegal will assume the AU Chair.

In Seychelles Wang Yi had talked more about climate change, blue economy, tourism and clean energy rather than strategic concerns since the Seychelles and China seem to have a clear understanding on it.

The main issues which African countries have with China relate to restructuring debt, the illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing (IUU) in coastal waters, the nature of treatment of Africans in China, all of which periodically come up and never get truly resolved. It is to China's credit that they add big dollops of Covid relief and spread-out BRI to newer countries. They also now seem more ready to play a strategic role in the Horn of Africa, just as they have reinforced that role in the Indian Ocean islands.

Endnotes :

[1]Chinese FM to begin new year with trips to Africa, continues 31-year tradition, Global Times, 30 December 2021, https://www.globaltimes.cn/page/202112/1243808.shtml
[2]Keynote speech by Chinese President Xi Jinping at opening ceremony of 8th FOCAC ministerial conference, FOCAC, 2 December 2021,
http://www.focac.org/eng/ttxxsy/202112/t20211202_10461079.htm
[3]Chris Devonshire-Ellis, China’s Wang Yi Foreign Ministerial Annual New Year Tour of Africa: 2021 Highlights, China Briefing, 11 January 2021, https://www.china-briefing.com/news/chinas-wang-yi-foreign-ministerial-annual-new-year-tour-of-africa-2021-highlights/
[4]Wang Yi Talks about the "Initiative of Peaceful Development in the Horn of Africa”, CGTN, 7 January 2022, https://news.cgtn.com/news/2022-01-07/Wang-Yi-elaborates-on-Horn-of-Africa-s-peaceful-development-initiative-16Cyaaoumo8/index.html
[5]Joint Statement by Foreign Ministersof the State of Eritrea and the People’s Republic of China, 5 January, 2022, Asmara, Ministry of Information Eritrea, https://shabait.com/2022/01/05/joint-statement-by-foreign-ministers-of-the-state-of-eritrea-and-the-peoples-republic-of-china/
[6]Comorian president meets with Chinese state Councillor, Xinhua, 8 January 2022,http://en.people.cn/n3/2022/0108/c90000-9942337.html
[7]AS Kemba Comoros-China multifaceted cooperation, Al-Watwan 7 January 2022, https://alwatwan-net.translate.goog/politique/comores-chine-i-une-coop%C3%A9ration-aux-multiples-volets.html?_x_tr_sl=fr&_x_tr_tl=en&_x_tr_hl=en-GB&_x_tr_pto=sc
[8]Max Yoeli, Belt and Road in Kenya: COVID-19 Sparks a Reckoning with Debt and Dissatisfaction, CFR, 25 March 2021, https://www.cfr.org/blog/belt-and-road-kenya-covid-19-sparks-reckoning-debt-and-dissatisfaction
[9]Otiato Opali, Nigeria likely to be one of African countries to produce Chinese vaccines, China daily, 17 December 2021, https://www.chinadaily.com.cn/a/202112/17/WS61bc57b1a310cdd39bc7c0ee.html
[10]Gurjit Singh, China Comes Calling in Africa, Chanakya Forum, 13 December 2021, https://chanakyaforum.com/china-comes-calling-in-africa/
[11]Wang Yi Talks about the "Initiative of Peaceful Development in the Horn of Africa, China News 7 January 2021, http://in.china-embassy.org/eng/zgxw/202201/t20220107_10479933.htm
[12]Joke Falaju, Lagos-Ibadan railway: Steady step in pursuit of comfort for commuters, The Guardian, 27 June 2021,https://guardian.ng/opinion/lagos-ibadan-railway-steady-step-in-pursuit-of-comfort-for-commuters/
[13]Ibadan-Kano Rail Line to Be Completed Soon—Buhari, Business Post 7 October 2021, https://businesspost.ng/general/ibadan-kano-rail-line-to-be-completed-soon-buhari/

(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>


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