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New FM's visit to Africa shows China's commitment

By YIFAN XU in Washington | China Daily Global | Updated: 2023-01-20 12:25

Foreign minister Qin Gang and Moussa Faki Mahamat (not pictured), the chairperson of the AU Commission, jointly meet the media in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia on Jan 11, 2023. [Photo/Xinhua]

A recent visit by Qin Gang to Africa to introduce himself as the new Chinese foreign minister reflected the continuity of China's policy on the continent.

"This visit has been designed to introduce a new Chinese foreign minister to key African partners of Beijing and important multilateral institutions like the AU and Arab League," Alex Vines, the director of the Africa Program at Chatham House, a policy institute headquartered in London, told China Daily.

Qin, appointed as Chinese foreign minister in late December 2022 after serving as ambassador to the US starting in July 2021, recently concluded a trip to Africa as his first official overseas visit after taking office.

From Jan 9-16, he visited Ethiopia, Gabon, Angola, Benin, and Egypt as well as the headquarters of the African Union (AU) and the League of Arab States (LAS).

For 33 consecutive years, Chinese foreign ministers have started the year with a visit to Africa.

Vines said that the tradition is a recognition that the votes of African states were instrumental in the People's Republic of China winning a seat in the United Nations General Assembly and on the UN Security Council in 1971.

Sourabh Gupta, a senior fellow at the Washington-based Institute for China-America Studies (ICAS), described the tradition as a "tremendous thing".

Gupta told China Daily that the tradition demonstrates three things.

The first is that China keeps its promises, and the promises are kept for decades, he said. "So, it commits to its promise. That's the point."

Second, Chinese foreign ministers' trips to Africa include visits to a wide of range of African countries.

"Small, big, west, east, everywhere," said Gupta. "China does not discriminate between small countries and big countries or play favorites in Africa or elsewhere."

Third, he said that China has committed to the continent's development while Africa also seeks prosperity and growth.

"The Chinese foreign minister going to Africa every year for the last 33 years is a symbol of that commitment to China and Africa's development," Gupta said.

Gupta stressed that there is a continuity to the tradition, which is about adapting to local institutions and conditions and "supporting their development in the context of those specific African countries themselves".

"There is no single playbook regarding how China engages Africa. Instead, what China does is try to adapt to local circumstances and be adaptive to local strategies," he said, "and that's what I see as the most important factor of China's engagement with Africa."

Qin said that Africa is a big stage for international cooperation rather than an arena for major-power rivalry, as he and Moussa Faki Mahamat, the chairperson of the AU Commission, jointly met the media on Jan 11.

Gupta said that the greatest interest of the African people is to be treated respectfully as people who "seek development and prosperity", not "pawns in a larger political game" or "an epicenter of global contestation".

"And they're looking for partners who are willing to be trustworthy and willing to stay the course in helping them develop. And they will be loyal development partners also reciprocally with those countries," said Gupta.

Gupta also said that there should be room for the US and China to cooperate on climate change or even infrastructure in Africa.

For example, the two countries could enable and assist the energy transition to solar, renewables and other electricity sources for some African countries by providing financing at a multilateral level or a bilateral level.

However, those prospects do not seem feasible now.

"The fact of the matter is, the sentiment in the US in Washington is that, even if we have a chance to cooperate with China in Africa, we will not do it. We would rather seek to do whatever we do ourselves and with our allies and partners. And it ultimately ends up boiling down to a zero-sum game," Gupta said.

"And it does not help Africans, and it does not help any of the parties involved. And especially because there is no need to really compete for Africa in this day and age geostrategically," he said. "Unfortunately, though, that's how matters are playing themselves out at this point of time."

He mentioned that the north-south divide also makes it politically hard to reach multilateral bargains on climate financing and other areas.

"Fortunately, there is no military competition in Africa. And that at least helps in a very large way," Gupta added.

Vines said that there is "a Cold War atmosphere currently developing, of which most African countries are disinterested in taking part — preferring to be nonaligned and not becoming pigeonholed by great-power rivalry".

But he also believes that "there is an opportunity for cooperation and managed competition in Africa".

"There are potential opportunities, including in business from FDI (foreign direct investment) to quality appraisal, such as what happened with the Catembe bridge from Maputo, which was constructed by China, but the quality appraisal was conducted by US firm Bechtel and subsequently a German firm," said Vines.

He said that China and the US support the AU's bid to join the G20, as does the UK, France, Russia and the EU.

"This is an opportunity for the G20 to be 'plus one' under the Indian presidency," Vines said.

At the news conference, Qin rebutted the allegation that China is creating a "debt trap" in Africa. Gupta said the charge is "very dishonest" for the most part.

"At the end of the day, it's not what China says or the United States says (about the situation in Africa). It's what the Africans say. And the Africans welcome the financing, the managerial knowhow, and the infrastructure buildup, and they seek more."

Gupta said that China is involved in Africa in a multifaceted way, so large sums of money are involved. In certain countries, some projects can go awry, leading to issues of debt distress.

"But for the most part, China has supported Africa's development, and Africa has welcomed that development and seeks more of it. And Africa does not consider itself to be a victim in any way in terms of what China is doing," he stressed.

Gupta also said that China is participating as part of the International Monetary Fund's common framework on debt distress.

"To broad-brush and say that China is out there to create these debts and debt leverage is, frankly, a very, very dishonest characterization of what China has done, and the Africans would be the first ones to say so," he said.

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