China’s new foreign minister, Qin Gang, arrived in Ethiopia this Tuesday for his first overseas trip, a week-long visit to the African continent that will also take him across Gabon, Angola, Benin, and Egypt. It’s a 33-year-long tradition for China’s foreign minister to make his first trip of the new year a tour of African countries. Since 2007, China’s leadership has paid 123 visits to the continent (versus 251 by African leaders to China).
Qin, 56, was the envoy to the United States before he succeeded Wang Yi to be China’s foreign minister on December 30, 2022. It is Qin’s first official visit to Africa and he will meet leaders and foreign ministers of the five countries as well as the African Union and the Arab League.
This visit is also special as it comes just one day after China reopened its border to the world after three years of global isolation, a rule change that marked the ending of China’s zero COVID policy. While trade with the African continent has remained robust over the COVID-19 period, nevertheless a key Chinese ambition over this and future overseas missions will no doubt be to reassure partners of China’s commitment to strengthen economic ties, including through stronger cross-border people movement.
During Qin’s visit to Addis Ababa, he will meet with the chairperson of the African Union Commission (AUC), Moussa Faki, and his team. While Qin’s visit will also include a meeting with the Arab League’s secretary general, based in Egypt, the AUC meeting is relatively more significant. In August 2022 China was among the first countries globally to publicly support the African Union’s bid to be permanently represented by the AU president and AUC in the G20.
During his meeting with Qin, Moussa Faki will have an opportunity to discuss the practicalities of G-20 membership and seek China’s support for African positions at the G-20 and other multilateral forums such as the U.N. and WTO. He can also engage China in the development of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) and follow up on several continent-wide commitments made at the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC), such as regional infrastructure projects and Special Drawing Rights (SDRs).
Qin will also attend the ribbon-cutting ceremony of the new China-built headquarters of the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC) – previously a China-U.S. collaboration project. The institution, which has been central to Africa’s admirable COVID-19 response, is the realization of a commitment made by China at the seventh FOCAC meeting back in 2018. No doubt, Africa CDC’s leadership will be seeking to build on this by encouraging China to do more to support the local production of vaccines and medicines in Africa.
On a bilateral level, leaders of the five destination countries will, mostly for the first time in three years, have a direct opportunity to press the Chinese leadership on their key priorities. So what might be on the agenda of each host country’s leaders?
For Ethiopia, 2023 is also a year of recovery – not from the pandemic, but from the two-year long war with Tigrayan rebels in the northern part of Ethiopia. To recover from the conflicts, restore disrupted economic activities, and rebuild ruined infrastructure, Ethiopia needs significant financing and investment support from its international partners.
China is Ethiopia’s largest trading and investment partner as well as one of its major creditors, with Chinese debts representing a quarter of the country’s total debts in 2021. While Ethiopia has been one of only three countries to date to request debt relief from what is known as the “G-20 common framework” (which includes China), Qin’s visit presents a key opportunity to engage China bilaterally to share Ethiopia’s ambitions for growth alongside debt management.
Gabon, currently sitting on the U.N. Security Council, has China as its largest economic and trade partner, with Gabon exporting mainly raw resources. In September 2022, on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly in New York, China’s then-Foreign Minister Wang Yi met his Gabonese counterpart and it was announced that China will work with Gabon to build a high-quality “Belt and Road” within the country. A key area for Gabon to engage with China will be climate action and ecotourism investment, given Gabon’s large forested areas and biodiversity.
This Thursday – January 12, 2023 – will witness Angola-China relations reach a 40-year milestone. Angola and China have enjoyed close ties in financing and energy since 2004. Over the years, Angola has drawn significant loans from China, most of which were oil-backed and directed to productive infrastructure. Nevertheless, Angola owes China $22 billion, a third of its total debt as of 2021, and representing the largest debt in both relative and absolute terms of the five African countries Qin is visiting this week. During Qin’s visit, no doubt managing and making the most of this debt to stimulate growth and foreign direct investment will be a major topic for discussion.
Benin has drawn Chinese loans for transport and digital infrastructure in the past. But there is more that Benin could seek Chinese support for – including regional projects such as the Abidjan-Lagos Corridor Highway. Furthermore, as Africa’s largest cotton producer and a top producer of cashew nuts and soybeans, Benin sees China as a major commodity export market.
Yet exporting raw materials is not enough – Benin is transforming its agriculture sector to add more value, through moves such as banning the export of raw cashew nuts from 2024. China can be a key partner for Benin in its efforts to transform the agricultural and industrial sectors, and these initiatives will likely be a high priority during Qin’s visit.
Last but not least on Qin’s itinerary is Egypt, which was the most popular African destination for Chinese tourists in 2018. In addition, since 2014, the two countries have had extensive cooperation on projects including trains, roads, and industrial parks (such as the Chinese-invested Suez Economic and Trade Cooperation Zone).
Most recently, in 2021, Egypt’s state-owned pharmaceutical company VACSERA cooperated with China’s Sinovac to locally produce COVID-19 vaccines. By February 2022, 30 million doses had been produced. However, this will need to scale up if Egypt is to become an African regional hub for vaccine manufacturing in cooperation with China, meeting its FOCAC commitment to locally produce 400 million vaccines on the continent by 2024. Thus, these areas as well as tourism will place highly on the Egyptian agenda.
Despite Qin being newly appointed and despite significant internal changes in China, by maintaining the tradition of the “first annual visit,” Qin’s trip demonstrates Chinese commitment to Africa as a first-order strategic partner. It’s also significant that Qin is engaging with African countries on both a multilateral and bilateral level.
But this trip is not just about China. It’s also about Africa’s terms. Given existing relationships, every African institution and country on Qin’s schedule has a hefty agenda to advance as China reopens and flows of trade and people once again accelerate.