The Chinese foreign minister is set for a 3-nation tour of East Africa as Beijing seeks to deepen ties.
It has become usual for China’s Foreign Minister to make his first abroad trip of the year to Africa. The yearly round of chin-stroking and conjecture among Africa-China observers regarding the choice of venues is also routine.
This year’s schedule seems to lay out a sharper storyline than in previous years. Wang will fly to the Maldives and Sri Lanka after visiting Eritrea, Kenya, and the Comoros Islands. So far, the Indo-Pacific has dominated. In other words, the trip seems to be focused on the Indian Ocean, an area critical to China’s economic, connectivity, and geopolitical ambitions.
On Tuesday, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi will begin a four-day journey to Eritrea, Kenya, and Comoros, as Beijing looks to improve ties in the region.
Wang’s journey to Africa from January 4 to 7 will follow in the footsteps of a Chinese custom dating back to 1991, in which the foreign minister’s first abroad tour of the year is to Africa.
It will also be Wang’s second trip to Africa in less than a month, having co-chaired the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) in Senegal in late November.
“Together, the three destinations at this time seem to reflect an emphasis on China’s maritime diplomacy and connections with the African side of the Indian Ocean,” said Lina Benabdallah, a China-Africa relations expert at Wake Forest University in North Carolina.
In November, Eritrea joined Chinese President Xi Jinping’s hallmark Belt and Road Initiative, which is intended to help China solidify its grip in the Horn of Africa and the Red Sea. China has extensive interests in the area, ranging from a military base to massive infrastructural projects including ports and railroads.
“Perhaps the visit to Eritrea has less to do with the Indian Ocean and more to do with the strategic necessity of access to the Red Sea,” Benabdallah said.
China has supported the development of motorways, trains, and power plants throughout Africa as part of its Belt and Road Initiative.
In the Horn of Africa, it sponsored and constructed a railway line from Addis Abeba, Ethiopia’s capital, to the Red Sea port of Djibouti. In 2017, it established its first overseas military station in Djibouti, and it has also sponsored mega ports and port terminals in the nation.
China has also supported many additional projects in Ethiopia, Kenya, and Sudan, but Beijing is concerned about the deteriorating security situation in the Horn of Africa, particularly in Ethiopia.
According to Mark Bohlund, a senior credit research analyst at REDD Intelligence, while East Africa was China’s initial focus in its engagement in the continent and the belt and road strategy, in particular, much of Beijing’s efforts in the last three years have focused on Western African nations and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).
“This year’s visit demonstrates a desire to expand existing contacts in East Africa,” said Bohlund.
Wang’s “visit to Eritrea and its accession to the [belt and road] demonstrates an aim to move Asmara closer into Beijing’s sphere of influence,” he added.
While the United States and Europe are concerned about China’s expanding influence in the Red Sea area, the crisis in northern Ethiopia has shown the dangers of isolating Eritrea, since there are few levers to influence the administration in Asmara, according to Bohlund.
According to Tim Zajontz, a research fellow at Stellenbosch University’s Center for International and Comparative Politics, Wang’s trip to Eritrea is a clear indication that Beijing prioritizes peace and stability in the Horn of Africa.
Wang had stopped in Addis Abeba on his way back from the FOCAC meetings in November when he appealed for a peaceful conclusion to the Tigray conflict, which has taken on regional proportions.
“Because the Eritrean Defense Forces are an active participant in the war, it can be anticipated that the conflict will top the agenda behind closed doors,” Zajontz said, noting that the concept of non-interference would be reinforced openly.
He said that Beijing is ready to see the conflicts cease, not least because of China’s large economic position in Ethiopia.
In contrast to Western nations, which have effectively cut connections with Asmara’s authoritarian dictatorship, China’s role in Eritrea has risen in recent years, according to Zajontz.
“Because of its strategic position, Eritrea has the potential to become a regional center for bordering markets in Ethiopia, South Sudan, and Sudan, all of which China has considerable commercial interests,” he added. “We expect to see further Chinese investments in Eritrea’s infrastructure sector, maybe including in the [Red Sea] ports of Massawa and Assab.”
According to Bohlund, Wang in Kenya is expected to endeavor to ensure that Chinese loans do not become a big political issue ahead of the August general elections.
Kenyans will vote in presidential and legislative elections in August, and a number of opposition figures have chastised the present government for primarily relying on Chinese loans to pay infrastructure projects.
Among the Chinese megaprojects in the East African country is a railway line from Kenya’s coastal city of Mombasa to Malaba on the Ugandan border, which China’s Export-Import (Exim) Bank had committed to pay initially. It paid US$3.2 billion for the initial segment of the railway from Mombasa to Nairobi, as well as US$1.5 billion for an expansion to Naivasha. The project then hit a snag.
The following trip to Kisumu and then to the Ugandan border crossing at Malaba has been halted. In 2018, the bank requested that Kenya redo research to demonstrate its economic feasibility.
Wang’s visit to Kenya, according to Zajontz, a professor in International Relations at the University of Freiburg in Germany, must be viewed as another effort at “damage control,” since Nairobi has launched on the arduous road of debt restructuring and austerity.
“There have been increased disputes in Kenya as a result of certain creditors, especially Chinese policy banks, refusing to prolong a debt moratorium,” he added.
Former US ambassador in Ethiopia and George Washington University professor David Shinn had a different view on Chinese foreign ministers’ annual travels to Africa in January or February since 1991. According to Shinn, the schedule is often designed to visit nations that have not hosted a Chinese foreign minister in a long time.
He said that Kenya gets more high-level visits than other African countries since it is a major country, but Eritrea and Comoros are uncommon stops for senior Chinese officials but nevertheless need attention on occasion.