When Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi visited Eritrea, Kenya and the Comoros in the first week of January as part of a five-country tour that also included the Maldives and Sri Lanka, he observed a 32-year-old Beijing ritual of visiting Africa at the beginning of each year. In fact, China’s ties to the mainland go back further than the past three decades.

Old ties

During the Cold War years, when the United States and the Soviet Union competed for influence over Africa, China maintained an ideological presence on the continent.

In 1966, after Kwame Nkrumah was ousted in a coup d’état while in Beijing, the Chinese hosted the Ghanaian independence leader for a few days before he decided to leave for Guinea.

The first Chinese infrastructure project on the continent was the 1,860 km Tanzania-Zambia Railway in the 1970s – the first transnational railway in Africa – which, in addition to carrying passengers, carried ore from mines. copper from Zambia to the port city of Dar-es-Salaam in Tanzania.

Since the 1990s, China has successfully used its old relationships with several African countries to reshape the relationship, using the continent’s abundant natural resources to serve its own massive growth.

Visit in progress

Since 2014, when he became Minister of Foreign Affairs, Wang has visited 35 African countries during his annual visits. This year’s tour followed the triennial ministerial conference of the Forum for China-Africa Cooperation in Dakar, Senegal, in December 2021, when Wang also visited Ethiopia in solidarity with Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed in the civil war in Tigray, and against the role of “external forces” – read the United States – in fueling the conflict.

Wang’s visit last week to Eritrea, which supported the Ethiopian leader, was in this sense a continuation of the previous visit to Addis Ababa.

In Kenya, Wang participated in the completion ceremony of the Chinese-built oil terminal in the port city of Mombasa. China has undertaken major Belt and Road initiatives in Kenya, including the construction of a railway line from the capital Nairobi to Mombasa.

In the Comoros, off the coast of Mozambique, he pledged more development aid.

Strategic ambitions

Wang announced a special envoy to the Horn of Africa where Eritrea, Ethiopia, Somalia, Djibouti and Kenya are located. It was an indication of the strategic importance of this Indian Ocean region to China, as well as its political and economic clout – as well as the aspiration to mediate the region’s conflicts.

Since 2017, Beijing has had a military base in Djibouti with 400 PLA ​​soldiers, in the immediate vicinity of a French base and an American base. A Chinese-built railway line links Djibouti to the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa.

Loans and Trade

For a dozen years, China has been Africa’s largest trading partner. Bilateral trade in 2020 amounted to $ 187 billion, according to the “Annual Report on China-Africa Economic and Trade Relations 2021,” released last September. The trade balance is strongly in favor of China.

According to the report, China invested $ 2.96 billion in Africa in 2020, an increase of 9.5% from 2019, making it one of the largest investors in Africa. Data collected by the China-Africa Research Initiative at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies shows that the stock of Chinese FDI in 2019 was $ 44.4 billion, ahead of the United States.

The top five African beneficiaries of Chinese investments are South Africa, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Angola, Ethiopia and Zambia.

While the main investments in African countries are in infrastructure construction and mining projects, China also invests in transport, scientific research and the service sector.

SAIS-CARI estimates that between 2000 and 2019, Chinese financiers signed 1,141 loan agreements worth $ 153 billion, most of which went to the transportation, power and mining sectors in that region. order.

The main loan recipients from 2010 to 2018 were Angola, Ethiopia, Zambia, Kenya and Nigeria.

Battle with the United States

The rivalry between the United States and China in Africa has been simmering for a long time, but it has intensified in recent years, with bilateral relations deteriorating in the Trump years and increasing tensions in the Indo-Pacific.

The United States realizes that China has befriended Africa with its money, ports, railways, and other infrastructure projects under the BRI, and is now seeking to provide a counterweight with its measures such as the Development Finance Corporation (also known as the International Development Finance Corporation), which will be deployed by the Biden administration for the G-7’s Build Back Better World initiative.

In December, the DFC announced the launch of a new platform “designed to stimulate investment in fragile and conflict-affected states in Africa”.