Chinese Foreign Minister’s Visit in Africa: Towards a Renewal of Relations between China and African countries?

22 janvier 2024
Le point de vue de Jean-Joseph Boillot


From 13 to 18 January, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi made his first African tour of the year, as he has done every January since 1991, visiting Egypt, Tunisia, Togo and Côte d’Ivoire. How can this choice be explained? What are the mutual interests of cooperation between China and African countries? Why does China want to strengthen its relations with the countries of the South? What is at stake in this tour for the maintenance of « Chinafrica »? How can China renew its relationship with African countries and with the global South? To what extent can India, Africa’s second-largest trading partner, expand on the continent and rival China? Jean-Joseph Boillot, associate researcher at IRIS, specialises in the Indian economy, the emerging world and the China-India-Africa triangle.

Having visited Egypt, Tunisia, Togo and Côte d’Ivoire, how do you explain this choice? What are the mutual interests of cooperation between China and African countries, and why does China want to strengthen its relations with the countries of the South?

Chinese diplomacy may not be very communicative, but it has a reputation for leaving nothing to chance. The visit of the powerful Minister of Foreign Affairs to Africa, the first of the year abroad in fact, is not without strong signs in several respects. Firstly, the choice, once again, of the African continent as the first stop on his international tour, with two main concerns. The first is directly political: China increasingly needs Africa’s fifty or so voices in international forums, at a time when it is in the midst of a strategic confrontation with the West on every issue, most recently Taiwan. The second is obviously economic: the Chinese economy is not in good shape. Beyond the 5.2% growth announced for 2023, which is actually quite fictitious, foreign trade is no longer driving the country’s growth and the trade war with Western countries does not bode well for the future. China is therefore trying to give a massive boost to President Xi Jinping’s pet project, the « New Silk Roads » or OBOR, of which Africa has become a key segment despite its still small commercial size. On this front, he needs to find ways of resolving the debt crisis to which his past strategy has led many African countries.

The choice of the four countries visited, two Arab and two sub-Saharan, is broader than this last subject. The first country, Egypt, has just joined the BRICS club, but remains a key partner of China’s main rival, the United States. Its investment needs are considerable, and the Minister is not arriving empty-handed, particularly for the construction of Cairo’s twin city. Tunisia does not really have the same stakes because of its small economic and diplomatic size, but Beijing would like to make it a Mediterranean anchor, and in particular a port for its Silk Roads to Europe, while the country is experiencing a difficult political situation with an authoritarian president. Finally, it will not escape anyone’s notice that the two sub-Saharan countries are French-speaking and are major poles in West Africa in terms of politics, ports and diplomacy, not to mention the fact that Côte d’Ivoire is on the eve of difficult elections.

At a time when the number of Chinese loans to sub-Saharan countries is falling, what is at stake in this tour for the maintenance of « Chinafrica »? By presenting itself as a diplomatic and economic alternative to the West, can China renew its relationship with African countries and with the global South in general?

Chinese loans are indeed in free fall, for reasons clearly linked to the unsustainability of the previous model: financing through bank loans, even at reduced rates, rather than through direct investment, and loans with unacceptable repayment clauses, particularly with politically sensitive collateral such as mines, farmland or port facilities. African countries are generally over-indebted and the Chinese question has become politically sensitive in many countries, as an IRIS Sup’ student pointed out in his dissertation: China’s image with the population is quite good at the start, then clearly deteriorates as its presence becomes more and more visible, until it becomes negative after a certain threshold, clearly that of over-indebtedness. The question for China, then, is whether or not it can find an alternative model to the first one and overcome the debt crisis.

On the whole, I’m rather sceptical, but I think that far from turning their backs on China, which still provides them with a great deal in terms of products and equipment that are much cheaper than Western competitors and widely popular, contrary to what we sometimes read, African countries will also gradually adopt a subtle double game, as India does with the West: presenting themselves as a great friend of China, but nevertheless containing its ambitions in favour of multipolar diplomacy and economic relations.

On the Chinese side, we will have to learn to come to terms with the African countries’ desire for independence. If the West understands this lesson and is able to show understanding in the face of this concern for balance, China will ultimately be the winner. If it rushes ahead and forces Africa to choose, it will lose out, and Africa will also lose its diplomatic and economic autonomy.

India is increasingly present on the African continent, and is now its second-largest trading partner, presenting itself as an alternative to China. What are India’s interests in expanding into Africa, and how can the country compete with China? Can India also establish itself as a leader of the « Global South » among African countries?

India is not really presenting itself as an alternative to China, because it knows that it doesn’t have the same political or economic clout. But it is already China’s second biggest trading partner – if we don’t consider the European Union as a single entity – and so it offers Africa what we might call freedom of choice, with equipment and products that are sometimes superior to Chinese products, which may be cheaper but of poor quality and not really suited to Africa’s needs. These include small, sturdy water pumps that are easy to repair, three-wheeled taxis called Rickshaw or Bajaj, named after the Indian company that first exported them to Africa, and which can be found right across rural Tanzania, or the mobile banking model that was originally designed in India and has been a huge success on the African continent.

On the Indian side, there is a convergence of business and diplomacy. Africa is a real outlet for Indian intermediate technology products, which are not at all suited to the markets of developed countries and which are geographically located just off the Indian coast, and therefore have low transport costs. For Indian diplomacy, it is a kind of indispensable counterweight to the power of China, and ultimately African countries feel the same way. Whether India sees itself as the leader of the global South, as it did for a time with the Non-Aligned Movement, which is currently holding its 19th Summit in Kampala, with 120 countries, albeit rather forgotten by the media, is another matter. The Global South is keen to preserve the global character of this reorganisation of the South in the face of the Western world. On the other hand, it is undeniable that India is now putting in place the means to strengthen its multidimensional presence in Africa, including its military presence, since it is the first foreign contingent in the multinational forces deployed on the continent. And it is precisely this that meets the demand of African countries to maintain the broadest possible spectrum of partnerships with the great powers.

Translated by Deepl.
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