Foreign Minister Wang Yi Makes a 9th ‘first trip of the year’ to Africa


China’s Foreign Minister, Wang Yi, who assumed his post in March 2013, has again made his first visit of 2022 to Africa, a Chinese tradition since 1991. His first trip of 2022 is his 17th to Africa in his current post, and this time the chosen country of arrival was Eritrea, followed by Kenya and Comoros. Here I reflect on his trip in the context of China-Africa political economy. This will shed light on the prospective rationale behind this itinerary, as well as what it may signal for the future. 

First, the sub-regional focus of Wang’s visit was East Africa, following his visit to West Africa  last November for the Senegal-hosted Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC). All but one of Africa’s 54 nations were represented at FOCAC, the exception being Swatini, which has diplomatic ties with Taiwan. His choice to emphasise East Africa so soon after those cross-continental bilateral meetings and a follow-on visit to Ethiopia, likely reflects the sub-region’s rising economic and security importance, for China especially. For example, China has its only overseas military base in Djibouti, neighbour to Eritrea and Ethiopia. 

Minister Wang’s first stop, in Eritrea, landlocked Ethiopia’s northern coastal neighbour, included meetings with Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki and Foreign Minister Osman Saleh. These reiterated commitment to the FOCAC 2021 declaration, which has a focus on multilateralism and trade, sustainable development, and cooperation to overcome challenges presented by the pandemic. The construction of a new railway line from Addis Ababa in Ethiopia to Assab, a port in Eritrea, is also reported to have been discussed.

Professor of global studies at Kyoto’s Doshisha University, Seifudein Adam, described the railway proposal as “[arguably] the winning card in China’s new diplomatic strategy in the Horn.” Pre-text here is that in 2019 Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed won the Nobel Peace Prize for his role in brokering a peace deal that ended the long-running border dispute between Ethiopia and Eritrea. A train line to Assab would diversify landlocked Ethiopia’s port access and help to develop Ethiopia’s ties with Eritrea without  passing through the northern Tigray region. Tigray is home to political parties whose contest of Prime Minister’s Ahmed’s government has turned violent.

From Eritrea, Wang Yi went to Ethiopia’s southern neighbour Kenya, a key node of China’s flagship Belt and Road Initiative. There, Wang signed six memorandum of understandings (MoU) with Kenya’s foreign minister Raychelle Omamo, including new trade partnerships that will enable greater agricultural exports from Kenya to China, initially targeting avocadoes and seafood. The two sides also agreed to establish a working group that would tackle tariff and nontariff barriers impeding bilateral trade, again with an early focus on agricultural trade. Growth of agricultural ties is in focus as a means of reducing poverty in rural areas, and also for the purpose of diversifying China’s own sources of agricultural imports. Otherwise, the MoUs’ had a focus on humanitarian assistance, strengthening investment cooperation in the digital economy and innovation.   

In Kenya Wang Yi also made announcements of regional significance. Speaking in the historic regional trade port hub of Mombasa he announced China would appoint a special Horn of Africa envoy. Second, that China would continue to work on extending Chinese-constructed railways in Kenya to connect these to neighbouring landlocked countries, such as Uganda, Rwanda, South Sudan, and eventually also the Democratic Republic of Congo. Given the challenges of debt sustainability and the pandemic, no time frame, however, was offered. Facilitating intra-African infrastructure is intended as support for Africa’s own agenda to foster the intra-African trade and development, as well as extra-African trade.

On the final African stop Wang Yi met Comorian Foreign Minister Dhoihir Dhoulkamal in Moroni, capital of Indian Ocean-island nation Comoros. The two sides agreed to advance Comoros’ “Emerging Comoros Plan for 2030”, and to cooperate in areas of climate change (important for low-lying Comoros) and to control the covid pandemic. Comoros and China have previously collaborated to largely wipe out malaria on the island nation. From Comoros Wang Yi also visited two additional Indian Ocean nations, the Maldives and Sri Lanka.

In fact, all six countries visited on this first trip for 2022 were strategically important in an Indian Ocean context. Two Chinese policies may be relevant background. The first is to establish the southern-western province of Yunnan as gateway to the Indian Ocean via Myanmar. The aim is for still under-developed Yunnan province to develop via becoming a leader in both green and digital-enabled development and equivalently fosters economic connectivity with and among South East Asian and Indian Ocean countries, especially those party to the Belt and Road Initiative.

A second potentially related domestic agenda is the “Fourteenth Five-Year Plan for Guangdong Marine Economic Development”, issued by Guangdong authorities on December 15. This takes the ocean as a ‘strategic location’ for high-quality development, meaning broadly shifting the economy to a labour- and capital-quality driven growth model. The plan calls for advances in the local marine industrial system, maritime scientific and technical innovation capabilities, marine governance mechanisms and capabilities, and in Guangdong’s broader role in the global maritime economy.

In sum, Wang Yi’s first international visit of 2022 appears intent not only to foster African development and trade, but also to foster oceanic agendas such as facilitating peace in the Horn of Africa, the Belt and Road Initiative, and the blue economy. In this context, Eritrea, and Kenya are important to both ocean and Africa-related development plans, as well as to peace in the Horn of Africa. This may explain why they were first on Wang Yi’s 2022 travel itinerary.

Dr Lauren A. Johnston is Visiting Senior Lecturer, Adelaide University Institute of International Trade and Founding Director, New South Economics.

Photo by Rafik Wahba on Unsplash

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