As the Gulf diverted international attention in the past few weeks and the Taiwan elections distracted Asia observers this weekend, China’s foreign minister Wang Yi concluded his customary start‑of‑the‑year Africa tour, reconfirming Beijing’s stance as one of the main international players on the continent. Opening the “diplomatic season” in Africa is a Chinese tradition that dates back to 1991, when then‑foreign minister Qian Qichen visited Ethiopia, Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania. Yet this tradition is even more appropriate in 2020 as this year marks the twentieth anniversary of the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC), the prime forum of dialogue between China and African countries. Wang’s 2020 tour lasted a full week, from 7 to 13 January, and involved five African countries: Egypt, Djibouti, Eritrea, Burundi and Zimbabwe. In contrast with China’s tradition, this year’s visit excluded West Africa — a 2020 extravaganza, as Beijing has always been very careful to balance the geography of the foreign minister’s annual visits. Although Wang’s choice of destinations is unusual, to say the least — apart from Egypt, these countries hold a marginal position in the continent’s balance of power — China’s strategic priorities offer some clues to better understand this preference. Indeed, Wang’s visit to Egypt, Djibouti and Eritrea might be a sign of Beijing’s growing concerns with the Middle East. These three African countries are among the most exposed to the instabilities that currently ravage the region. China’s geopolitical interest in Eritrea (where Beijing recently launched several development projects) and Djibouti can be explained by the geographical location of the two countries, at the very centre of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Chinese investments in port infrastructures in Eastern Africa provide Beijing with a competitive advantage, ensuring priority treatment and lower fares for Chinese vessels. Djibouti’s harbor — located at the crossroads of the maritime routes from the Bab el-Mandeb strait to the Suez Canal — is now key for China, as it ensures a preferential access to markets in the region and in Europe. Furthermore, Djibouti hosts the first-ever Chinese overseas military base. Military power projection in the area — thus meeting strategic targets such as logistic support, peacekeeping, international cooperation and securitization of communication sea-lanes — complies with Beijing’s strategic ambitions for the continent, and stresses the Horn of Africa’s current geopolitical centrality in the plans of Chinese policymakers. This system, consolidated in Djibouti, is now being considered in Pakistan (Gwadar) and Sri Lanka (Hambantota), as well.
Although Wang justified the visit by making reference to South‑South cooperation, common development and shared interests, China’s unrelenting engagement in Africa also underscores Beijing’s opposition to the USA, whose strategic priorities have been presenting a contrariwise plan for the continent. Between the two, China’s is the one that is paying off. Consider, for instance, the emblematic case of Huawei. Despite the disputes that put on hold the marketing of Huawei’s 5G technology in the Western world, Huawei goes strong in Africa. After entering the continent in 1991 through Kenya, the telecommunication company tightened its grasp on Africa, securing its position with a 2019 Memorandum of Understanding with the African Union (AU). Nowadays, Huawei is present in 40 countries in Africa, but its engagement goes beyond smartphones and network coverage. Aside from building a 12,000-kilometre underwater cable to connect Africa to Asia, Huawei also provides thousands of surveillance video cameras to several countries around the continent, such as Kenya, Mauritius and Ghana. Huawei thus makes an exemplary case to illustrate the extent and diversification of China’s engagement. Indeed, Beijing’s strategy for Africa builds on two pillars. On the one hand, China-Africa cooperation perfectly fits into the principles of China’s foreign policy, which pictures Beijing as the “coordinator” of the international system. The growing dependence of African countries on Chinese capital, technology and “goodwill” well espouses this vision. Indeed, Africa’s debt to China is skyrocketing. Many observers explain that the extent of Chinese investments on the continent compels African states to agree to unsustainable debts. Djibouti is a prime example: more than 70% of the country’s external debt is owed to Beijing, and interest solvency seems to force national authorities to cede control of strategic infrastructures to China.
On the other, China-Africa cooperation has also entered the domain of the US-China confrontation, with Washington moving away from the continent, partly due to an inconsiderate narrative and partly due to the sanctions currently imposed on no less than fourteen countries. In particular, during Wang’s visit, the case of Zimbabwe remained at the centre of the competition between Washington and Beijing. In fact, as Wang stressed, China opposes the sanctions imposed on Zimbabwe, thus consolidating the rhetoric of China as a peaceful force for the African continent vis-à-vis the US. Devastated by negative economic growth rates (-7.1 percent in 2019), Zimbabwe ascribes its poor economic performance to the EU and the US. Yet sanctions were imposed on certain people and enterprises — including Zimbabwe’s president Emmerson Mnangagwa — due to a lack of progress in democratic and human rights reforms and restrictions on press freedoms, and not against the entire country. Wang’s presence in Zimbabwe, moreover, attempts to settle a controversy started in the country about budget figures. Despite being considered one of Zimbabwe’s closest allies, Beijing ranked poorly among the country’s foreign donors — a result that profoundly irritated Chinese leaders.
Finally, during Wang’s visit to Burundi, president Pierre Nkurunziza designated China a fundamental partner for the country, thus opposing the image of a regime torn by political isolation, human rights violations and growing authoritarianism. In September 2019, when the China-funded state house opened, and merely a week after the launch of a hydropower plant in Ruzibazi, Nkurunziza called China “a best friend” of Burundi, mimicking the meeting between Chinese president Xi Jinping and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin in June 2019.
The nature of China-Burundi relations reflects the general perception of China in Africa: an alternative partner to the West, capable of offering political assets and economic support without fixing conditionalities and abstaining from any form of interference in internal affairs, asking in return a priority access to African markets and resources. A trade-off that African governments are willing to accept. And that China is willing to provide, since it suits Beijing’s long-term vision of the international system, in the construction of which Africa can play a relevant part.