On January 9 of this year, Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang began an eight-day trip to the African continent, having been appointed to the post just ten days earlier (December 30, 2022). The Chinese foreign minister visited Ethiopia, Gabon, Angola, Benin, and Egypt during his trip. He also paid visits to the headquarters of the African Union and the Arab League in their respective capitals. Qin Gang met with high-ranking politicians and statesmen in every location he visited.
Commentary in the Global Times on this trip highlights several noteworthy points. First, this trip was the first in a series of such events that Qin Gang has undertaken since taking office. Second, it continued the tradition established by the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs at the turn of the 1980s and 1990s (and never interrupted since) of beginning each new year with a trip to Africa by the head of the ministry. Former Minister Wang Yi, who headed China’s Foreign Ministry for nearly a decade and is now responsible for the full range of China’s foreign policy activities in the CCP Central Committee, has always been guided by this principle.
However, the current trip by China’s new foreign minister is given a very important flavor by the recent sharp increase in activities by Beijing’s main geopolitical adversary, Washington, in the same region of Africa. Nonetheless, EU officials, still in limbo over the foreign policy choices of the continent they lead, are beginning to show signs of similar concern.
Note that it was only after the current administration had come to power in the United States that US policymakers more or less understood the answer to the question: how exactly does China’s emergence as a world power threaten the unique position Washington gained with the end of the Cold War, i.e., in the current phase of the “Great Game”?
The search for an answer to these and similar questions in the sphere of “gunboat diplomacy,” which is what the propagandists (with their apocalyptic nuclear mania and their bellicosity) do most often, is now a dead end. If not a global catastrophe. For the above “game” is increasingly being played around the already identified major global problem of humanity’s survival (not proverbial “progress”) in the face of a multiplication of challenges, also of global proportions.
It cannot be solved without settling the problems that have accumulated over the centuries in the relations between the “North and South” constituting the present world order. China’s central state concept of building a “community of destiny,” unveiled by current Chinese leader Xi Jinping in late 2012, aims to overcome them. The Belt and Road Initiative project is crucial to this concept and has several branches, of which the African one is becoming increasingly important.
Since the early 2000s, the PRC has had a platform for dialogue with all African countries, in addition to bilateral relations with individual African states. The Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) has met eight times with a three-year periodicity since its inception in 2000. In particular, it has met three times at the senior official level. FOCAC last met (at the ministerial level) in November 2021 in Dakar, Senegal’s capital.
Note that the three-year hiatus between regular FOCAC negotiating rounds does not mean that nothing fills this period. On various occasions, working groups and ministerial videoconferences are held with a select group of participants. For example, former Foreign Minister Wang Yi hosted such a conference in August 2022 “due to the complex and unstable international situation as well as the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.”
China is rapidly expanding its presence on the African continent, primarily through economic, educational, and health-care cooperation. This is where African countries face the most serious problems, which go unresolved and result in millions of migrants. The latter are primarily moving northward.
The importance of engagement on the African continent is already growing rapidly for all of the world’s major players for a variety of reasons. And it will only grow over time. Success in the increasingly evident “race to influence Africa” will be enjoyed by those actors who have been particularly successful in implementing projects on the continent in the areas outlined above, as well as other similar spheres.
China is already well ahead of its main geopolitical competitor and the leading European countries individually in terms of integral indicators (volume of trade, annual investments, and the volume of their accumulation) reflecting the status and prospects in these areas. While it has so far underperformed the EU as a whole on these indicators, Beijing has set a goal of catching up to the Europeans in Africa in their entirety.
The graph of changes in foreign direct investment (FDI) in African economies over the last two decades illustrates the main reason for the gradual accumulation of anxiety in Washington related to China’s growing activity on the continent. Since 2013, China has been significantly ahead of the United States in this indicator. This is why Washington (and Brussels) sounded the alarm: “Something must be done about this.”
Initially, said “something” was limited to crude propaganda about “debt pits”, where allegedly anyone who agrees to cooperate with China in the framework of, say, its BRI will end up. The project to modernize Uganda’s international airport in Entebbe, in particular, has been attacked in this manner.
However, propaganda can only play a minor role in the fight against a political opponent. The main thing (aside from hurling insults at the competitors) is to offer something unique and “better” to the object of the competition. Initially (in the summer of 2021), the matter was limited to developing a general conceptual plan (“Cornwall Consensus”).
A conceptual plan is a sound idea. However, Africans in need require specific action, which is what the EU and the US proposed last year at their summits in Brussels and Washington.
The sixth EU-AU summit, held on February 17-18, 2022, was attended by the leaders of forty African countries. The EU’s leadership made a number of specific and appealing promises to them. One of the comments stated that the EU wants to be Africa’s friend. Indeed, the entire event was described as “a combination of pomp and meaningful results.” It also stated that both parties “pursued overlapping and occasionally divergent interests.” The comment about “China’s growing influence in Africa” as one of the main reasons for the Africa-Europe summit is noteworthy.
Almost a year later, the leaders of 49 countries on the continent listened to no less enticing promises from US President Joe Biden. The meeting with him, held on December 13-15 in Washington, was under the slogan “Africa’s success is the success of the whole world.” Secretary of State Blinken, who attended, uttered a number of other words that were no less gratifying for the guests. For example, “Africa is the most important geopolitical power” in the world.
Against the backdrop of these (outwardly impressive) events held last year by the main geopolitical adversaries, the new head of the Chinese Foreign Ministry made a trip to the African continent. Its results were quite positively evaluated both in the countries visited and in China itself.
We point out an important fact that Qin Gang may well be considered an expert on the policies of major geopolitical rivals. In the year before he took office now, he had been ambassador to Washington, and before that he had worked for a long time in the Chinese embassy in London.
Meanwhile, doubts are being expressed in the US and the EU about the possibility of ousting China, at least tangibly, from the positions it has come to occupy in Africa. This conclusion is reached in particular by the experts of the analysis center of the prestigious British publication Economist Group, whose research is cited by Bloomberg. In particular, it points out that Africans have not forgotten how Europeans had put to use their continent relatively recently. In this context, they are today asking “questions about the motives for the repeated participation of the EU and the US” in projects (ostensibly) aimed at the economic development of African countries.
In conclusion, we note once again that the uncompromising struggle between the main players in the current phase of the “Great World Game” for influence in Africa leads to the division of resources accumulated in the world, which could be used in a coordinated way to support the population of both this continent and the “Third World countries” in general.
The aforementioned coordination is directly linked to the key Chinese concept of building a “community of a Common Destiny”.
Vladimir Terekhov, expert on the issues of the Asia-Pacific region, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.”