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Why Chinese Foreign Minister's Visit Focuses on North and West Africa

Tunisian President Kais Saied, left, shakes hands with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi on Jan. 15, 2024, in Tunis. (Tunisian Presidency via AP)
Tunisian President Kais Saied, left, shakes hands with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi on Jan. 15, 2024, in Tunis. (Tunisian Presidency via AP)

China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi is on a tour of four African countries this week, and analysts say the choice of Egypt, Tunisia, Togo and Ivory Coast indicate Beijing’s current foreign policy objectives, including a desire to play a greater role in negotiating peace between Israel and the Palestinians.

Wang has made the African continent his first international port of call at the start of every year since becoming foreign minister in 2013. The only exception was 2023, when his short-lived replacement, Qin Gang, was at the helm. This year’s trip started in North Africa, in Egypt, a key player in Middle East politics.

In Cairo, Wang advocated for a peace conference to be held on the war in Gaza and called for a timetable to implement a two-state solution. He also used his stop to call for an end to attacks on civilian vessels in the Red Sea.

China is concerned about the escalating crisis around the critical international trade route, after Yemen’s Houthi rebels started attacking cargo ships in protest at Israel’s war with Hamas. The attacks have disrupted global commerce, and U.S. and U.K. forces responded last week by conducting strikes on Houthi targets in Yemen, raising the specter of a regional war developing.

In a veiled swipe at the West, Wang warned that “the adding of fuel to the fire of tensions in the Red Sea should be avoided and an increase in the overall security risk of the region should be prevented.”

As a first stop, Egypt makes sense, analysts say.

“I expected that Wang Yi's first stop would be Egypt, given its potential to play a role in reducing tensions in the Middle East,” Lauren Johnston, associate professor at the University of Sydney’s China Studies Center, told VOA.

Cobus van Staden, a China expert at the South African Institute for International Affairs, agreed Egypt was a likely first stop “because of its adjacency to the Israel crisis and also the Red Sea shipping crisis, so it’s kind of a double whammy.”

Paul Nantulya, a research associate at the Africa Center for Strategic Studies in Washington, said China wants to have a more prominent role on the international stage in terms of the Israel-Hamas war.

“China is pushing very hard and working with the Global South countries around the Gaza crisis,” he said.

Separately, China has invested a lot in Egypt through its infrastructure-building Belt and Road Initiative and is building the country’s new capital. Egypt also became a member of the BRICS group of emerging nations — in which China is a key player — at the start of the year.

Au revoir France, Ni Hao China?

Analysts also noted that the countries’ chosen for Wang’s trip are in areas experiencing a decline of Western influence and therefore good territory for China to make inroads.

Tunisia, for example, was in a dispute last year with the European Union over a financial aid package aimed at stopping migration to Europe.

Togo and Ivory Coast are in West Africa, a region that’s increasingly been severing ties with former colonial power France.

“Possibly China sees an opportunity in the rapid escalation of anti-French feeling in the Sahel,” van Staden told VOA.

Russia has also been increasing its influence in the region.

West Africa has experienced several recent military coups, and Nantulya said it was interesting that despite having had close relations with the governments that were deposed, China hasn’t been that adversely affected.

“I think the Chinese side has been able to protect its equities and to establish very strong ties with the military governments that are in place,” he said.

In terms of Ivory Coast, Johnston noted the country is home to the African Development Bank, saying: “Perhaps some new financing will be announced in partnership with the AfDB.”

Additionally, China has a number of large port projects in West Africa, analysts said, as another explanation for Wang’s itinerary.

Football stadium diplomacy

There are several events taking place in Africa while Wang is there that also could be reasons for his country choices.

There is a senior Chinese team at the Non-Aligned Movement summit in Kampala this week, said Nantulya, adding: "It’s unclear whether Wang will make a surprise stop.”

And while Wang is in town, Ivory Coast is hosting the Africa Cup of Nations — the most important football tournament in Africa.

It’s unclear whether Wang will take in a match, but if he did, it would be in a Chinese-built stadium. China has been building stadiums across the continent, according to a recent piece in The Conversation.

“Linked to the belt and road initiative, which is intended to promote trade and foster interdependence between China and other nations, stadiums have frequently been gifted to African nations [or else paid for using relatively cheap loans],” the article said.

After Africa, Wang heads to Jamaica and Brazil, two more countries that show China’s increasing focus on engagement with the so-called Global South.