Wang Yi’s African Tour: What it Means for Southeast Asia
Wang Yi’s first overseas trip this year to Africa has implications for Southeast Asia.
Carrying on a 30-year diplomatic tradition since 1991, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, concurrently state councilor, chose to visit Africa for his first overseas trip in 2021. He visited Nigeria, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Tanzania, Botswana and the Seychelles from 4 – 9 January 2021. Although Wang Yi’s Africa visit has ostensibly no direct relation to Southeast Asia, a number of important implications can be drawn.
Firstly, China has traditionally regarded itself as a champion of the third world (a term frequently used during the Cold War) or, more recently, the developing world. Occasionally, Chinese official sources highlight that China, together with 28 other developing countries from Asia, Africa and the Middle-East, played a key role at the 1955 Bandung Conference to come up with the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence; i.e. mutual respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity, mutual non-aggression, non-interference in each other’s internal affairs, equality and mutual benefit, and peaceful coexistence.
In China’s eyes, these principles remain as relevant today as they were more than 65 years ago. As the largest developing country in the world, Beijing sees itself as having the credentials to be a voice for the developing world. In this regard, Wang Yi’s 2021 African visit is intended to reinforce the message that China will continue to speak up for the interests of the developing countries that include foremost its own interests. Whether the other developing countries regard China as having a role to play here and the extent of such a role are separate issues.
Secondly, a key plank of Wang Yi’s Africa visit is to reinforce the message that China seeks to continue to play a constructive role in their economic development including pushing ahead with its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Well before the term BRI became fashionable, China had helped Tanzania to construct the Tanzania-Zambia Railway which was completed and handed over in 1976. In Africa, China now is a key financier and builder of infrastructure projects such as the Lagos-Ibadan standard gauge rail line in Nigeria. On this trip, Wang Yi and his Democratic Republic of Congo counterpart signed an MOU for cooperation on the BRI.
Wang Yi’s 2021 African visit is intended to reinforce the message that China will continue to speak up for the interests of the developing countries that include foremost its own interests. Whether the other developing countries regard China as having a role to play here and the extent of such a role are separate issues.
To be sure, China’s infrastructure projects in Africa have encountered their fair share of difficulties as stalled projects like the Bagamoyo port and special economic zone in Tanzania and the Nata-Maun road project in Botswana would attest to. Despite these difficulties, Beijing seems determined, judging from Wang Yi’s Africa visit, to press ahead with the BRI in Africa albeit with modifications. This is the same approach that Beijing has taken with its BRI projects in Southeast Asia and is very likely to be a key thrust in its ties with Southeast Asia this year.
Thirdly, another key plank of Wang Yi’s Africa visit is to re-affirm China’s commitment to make Chinese Covid-19 vaccines available to countries there amid the current scramble for vaccines across the world. This commitment builds on Chinese President Xi Jinping’s earlier pledge to make Chinese Covid-19 vaccines a global public good.
It appears that one key advantage of the vaccines developed by Chinese companies like Sinopharm and Sinovac is that by using a weakened or inactivated form of the virus, they can be transported and stored at a much higher temperature than the mRNA vaccines developed by foreign companies. Another advantage is the much lower cost of each dose of the vaccine. These characteristics suggest that the Chinese vaccines are a better fit for many parts of Africa as well as Southeast Asia. One area that bears watching is which developing countries would receive them first and the costs involved. Recipient countries are likely to want to source a number of vaccines to reduce over-reliance on any particular company or country.
Fourthly, even though Wang Yi again chose Africa to visit for his first foreign trip abroad, it does not mean that Southeast Asia is any less important to China. Last year, Wang Yi also visited the African countries of Burundi, Djibouti, Egypt, Eritrea, and Zimbabwe from 7 – 13 January 2020 for his first foreign trip. A week later President Xi Jinping went on a state visit to Myanmar from 17 – 18 January 2020 for his first trip abroad in 2020.
Southeast Asian states are important to China as they are a part of Beijing’s neighbourhood diplomacy and are mostly developing countries like China. Southeast Asia as a whole has become relatively more important given China’s troubled relations with key countries such as Australia, India, the United States and a number of European countries. China is therefore likely to continue to try to better manage its ties with Southeast Asia this year with a focus on BRI and vaccine cooperation.
Lye Liang Fook, a former Senior Fellow at the ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute, is an independent observer of regional developments.