For 30 Years Every Chinese Foreign Minister Visits Africa First
Over the last three decades, every Chinese foreign minister’s first overseas trip of the year has been to Africa.
The Biden administration has noticeably increased its focus on Africa. In December, it hosted a US-Africa Leaders Summit in Washington, DC. In January, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, visited Senegal, Zambia, and South Africa. Earlier this month, Secretary of State Antony Blinken visited Ethiopia and Niger. Now, Vice President Harris is in the midst of a trip to Ghana, Zambia, and Tanzania. All of this is welcome news.
The fact that China’s new foreign minister, Qin Gang, took his first overseas trip as foreign minister to Africa in January (visiting Ethiopia, Gabon, Angola, Benin, and Egypt) isn’t really news...only because over the last thirty years, every Chinese foreign minister has begun his year with a trip to the continent. During that time, China’s commitment to the rapidly growing and resource-rich continent has been punctuated by countless transactions and investments—most notably in infrastructure and extractive projects.
China’s growing presence in Africa seems to have suddenly attracted the attention of many who haven’t always focused much on the continent, its people, and its potential role in global affairs. However, Washington and Beijing have each gone to great lengths to claim that its interests aren’t driven by what the other is doing. While in Ethiopia, Foreign Minister Qin said, “Africa should be a big stage for international cooperation, not an arena for major-force rivalry.” In Senegal, Secretary Yellen said, “This is not competition with China—we want to deepen our engagement with Africa.”
While on his trip, Qin announced numerous Chinese investments in Africa, including in the new African Centers for Disease Control in Ethiopia, which China funded and built. The US was initially also involved in building the center, but withdrew its support due to concerns over China’s intelligence gathering. Quin also pledged support for reconstruction efforts throughout Ethiopia’s Tigray region, in which the two year-long war recently reached a ceasefire.
And it isn’t only China that is giving new priority to partnering with Africa. Russia’s Vladimir Putin recently announced that the second Russia-Africa Summit will take place in St. Petersburg this summer. At the first summit in 2019, 43 African heads of state were in attendance. In his announcement, Putin said, “Our country is determined to continue building a full strategic partnership with our African friends, and we are ready to shape the global agenda together.”
It seems implausible that America’s growing surge of interest in Africa isn’t related to the ever increasing global power competition. And while many African countries are facing significant economic challenges—including the daunting need to create enough good paying jobs to meet the unprecedented number of young Africans about to enter the workforce—American leaders should tread carefully as they describe why Africa matters.
The United Nations predicts that the world population will increase from 7.7 billion today to 11.2 billion by 2100, with most of this growth coming from Africa. By 2030, young Africans are expected to constitute 42 percent of global youth. What’s more, by 2050, consumer and business spending on the continent is expected to reach roughly $16.1 trillion. All of that offers tremendous opportunities for global businesses, and for African leaders to better chart their own economic future.
But if our outreach to Africa is portrayed “strategic competition” or “strategic investments,” well, it’s hard to blame Africans if they think to themselves, “Once again, it’s not about us and our needs, it’s about them.” Make no mistake, there is a tremendous role that America can play in helping Africa’s potential to become a reality. Listening, asking how we can help leaders—especially young entrepreneurs—pursue their own hopes and dreams…that wouldn’t be a bad place to start.
This blog was drafted with the help of Carlotta Murrin.