Jan 6 (The Africa Report) – Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi returned to Africa on Tuesday 4 January. He arrived in the Eritrean capital Asmara to begin a three-nation, four-day tour that will also take him to Kenya and the Indian Ocean island state of Comoros.
The tour marks the custom that the Chinese foreign minister’s first overseas trip of the new year is always to Africa, a tradition that is now in its 32nd year. It also comes less than five weeks after Wang’s last trip to the continent, when he led the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation conference in Senegal and also made a quick stop in Ethiopia.
Although the Chinese Foreign Ministry did not elaborate on why these three countries were selected for this year’s visit, spokesman Zhao Lijian hinted last week that pushing back against the United States regarding the conflict in Ethiopia will likely emerge as a prominent theme during Wang’s tour, especially in Eritrea and Kenya.
“As fellow developing countries, China and African countries are faced with the common task of safeguarding sovereignty, opposing hegemony, and achieving development,” said Zhao at the regular press briefing in Beijing on Thursday. He used the same language as official Chinese criticism of U.S. sanctions against Addis Ababa and other developing countries. “We are comrades-in-arms in the fight against hegemonism,” he added in a not-so-subtle dig at the United States.
While bilateral issues will likely dominate Wang’s discussions with his various hosts, the escalating tensions between China and the US will no doubt be close to the surface at each stop along the tour. In Kenya, for example, where a general election will take place in August and the presidential campaign is now in full swing, Wang may speak to the issue of democracy that he raised in his end-of-year interview with Xinhua last week.
Even though the US Summit for Democracy is long over and the event really didn’t generate a lot of interest, Chinese officials are apparently still riled, as evidenced by Wang’s statement that “no one is in position to lecture others on democracy” — a point, incidentally, that was also picked up by the Kenyan media.
After his tour wraps up on Friday, Wang will head to the Maldives and Sri Lanka.
Possible agenda points for Wang Yi’s Africa tour this week:
- ERITREA: The war in Ethiopia will undoubtedly top the agenda in Wang’s talks with his counterpart Osman Saleh Mohammed. China and Eritrea are aligned in their support of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed in his fight against Tigrayan forces. The choice of going to Eritrea was also likely influenced by Beijing’s steadily growing popularity and influence throughout the entire Horn of Africa region.
- Also, the two sides may unveil Belt & Road projects in response to Asmara joining the network last November. China often rewards new BRI members with loans or infrastructure development projects.
- KENYA: Ethiopia will probably be a point of discussion in talks with Cabinet Secretary of Foreign Affairs Raychelle Omamo but not a very prominent one. Wang will likely want to avoid any comparisons with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who leaned heavily on Omamo regarding the war across the border. Instead, debt relief will probably be a much more pressing concern for the Kenyans. Look for Kenyan attempts to get the China Exim Bank to ease up on costly loan servicing obligations.
- Wang may also pay a visit to the nearly-complete Nairobi Expressway, a high-profile public-private partnership with the China Road and Bridge Corporation. It highlights the new, less state-oriented direction stakeholders have advocated for Sino-African cooperation. Trade and vaccine production announcements are also likely.
- COMOROS ISLANDS: The inclusion of the Comoros islands on the itinerary reinforces the heightened importance that Beijing places on Africa’s Indian Ocean states. Last year, Wang went to the Seychelles and after he leaves Moroni, Wang will head to the Maldives and Sri Lanka — both also key Indian Ocean countries. China increasingly views the Indian Ocean as among its most strategically vital maritime interests, especially with the opening of new overland trade routes through Pakistan and Myanmar that reduce shipping times by weeks and reduce China’s vulnerability to the so-called “Malacca Trap.”