This week as Beijing suddenly announced that China's foreign minister Qin Gang had been removed after just seven months in the job, his predecessor and now replacement, seasoned diplomat Wang Yi, was on a tour of some of Africa's key economies.
Wang participated in BRICS summit-related meetings in South Africa, infrastructure talks in Kenya, and pledges on debt relief in Ethiopia, meetings that analysts said illustrate China’s way of showing its commitment to the continent.
"Talk about hitting the ground running: news broke when Wang Yi was on tour as the director of the foreign affairs commission of the party's central committee,” Lauren Johnston, senior China-Africa researcher at the South African Institute of International Affairs said of the revelation that Qin — who hadn’t been seen for a month — had been removed.
“His tour, now as foreign minister, includes South Africa, Nigeria, Kenya and Turkey — all big players in the Global South," she told VOA.
Paul Nantulya, research associate for the Africa Center for Strategic Studies in Washington, told VOA that Wang’s trip to the region comes as China seeks to re-engage more with Africa in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.
However he noted: “It is rather unusual to have two high-level multicountry visits within a space of six months, because remember Qin Gang was in Africa at the beginning of the year for the inaugural Chinese foreign affairs visit.”
Cliff Mboya, a research fellow at the Afro-Sino Center for International Relations, suggested it might not be coincidence that Wang was in the region when Qin’s exit was announced, noting Wang could be “coming to re-establish relations and continue from where Qin Gang left.”
Requests and Promises
The analysts noted Kenya, South Africa and Nigeria, where Qin is also scheduled to travel, are the economic powerhouses of East, Southern and West Africa. Ethiopia, a surprise addition to Wang’s itinerary, is the seat of the African Union.
According to a statement from the Chinese Foreign Ministry, while in Addis Ababa Wang told Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed: “China encourages powerful and reputable enterprises to invest in Ethiopia and is willing to play a positive role in easing Ethiopia's debt pressure.”
The country is billions of dollars in debt. Security there is also a concern as the strategic Horn of Africa nation emerges from a brutal civil war.
Next, in Kenya, Wang met with President William Ruto — who was elected last year and had talked tough on China during his campaign.
Nantulya noted that China is Kenya’s largest trading partner and a key security partner, and that Beijing has been “very anxious about the change of government” there and was obviously looking to cement ties.
According to a readout from the Chinese side, Ruto used the meeting with Wang to push for more infrastructure investment, despite analysts noting China has pulled back a bit recently from its major Belt and Road Initiative projects.
Kenya said it is willing to “deepen cooperation in the fields of railways, highways, water conservancy, aviation and renewable energy,” the Chinese Foreign Ministry said.
On his third stop, in South Africa, Wang attended security meetings related to the upcoming summit of the BRICS group of economies, which also includes Brazil, Russia and India. Wang spoke with his South African counterpart, Naledi Pandor, and President Cyril Ramaphosa.
According to the Chinese Foreign Ministry, Wang noted that “the friendship between China and South Africa has a long history, and the two countries have forged a profound friendship of comrades and brothers.”
Steven Kuo, a senior lecturer at the University of Cape Town and author of the book “Chinese Peace in Africa: From Peacekeeper to Peacemaker,” pointed out that Chinese rhetoric around “South-South cooperation” and anti-imperialism “does strike a chord with African countries. Increasingly African countries, including South Africa, see the West as hypocritical, so there are some ideological commonalities.”
Wang also promised South Africa that China would “expand cooperation in key minerals, digital economy, clean energy, environmental protection industries, marine resource development, poverty reduction and other fields.”
Wang’s trip comes as global powers vie for influence in Africa — which is youthful, growing and resource-rich.
This week has been a busy time for Africa diplomatically, with the U.S. Treasury undersecretary in Kenya and Somalia, Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Dymtro Kuleba trying to get support on a trip to Equatorial Guinea, and Russian President Vladimir Putin hosting leaders at a Russia-Africa summit in St. Petersburg from Thursday.
The next two stops on Wang’s schedule are a fourth African state, the continent’s largest economy, Nigeria, and Turkey.
Like Kenya, Nantulya noted, Nigeria has a new government, which might be one of the reasons it was chosen, as well as the fact that Beijing is increasing engagement in West Africa. Earlier this month China’s navy visited the country amid speculation it is seeking a military base somewhere on the Atlantic coast.
In August, President Xi Jinping is expected to attend the BRICS Summit in Johannesburg, along with all the other leaders of the bloc, except for Russian President Putin, who is unable to attend due to an International Criminal Court warrant out for his arrest.