For more than thirty years, China’s foreign policy activity in each new year has invariably begun with a tour of a number of African countries by the Chinese Foreign Minister. The increasing importance of the continent as part of the so-called “Global South” and for the main participants in the “Great World Game” has become a commonplace in texts devoted to analysing the processes taking place in the world today.
For Wang Yi, who has been the Foreign Minister of the People’s Republic of China for almost 15 years (with a short break), the year 2024 was no exception. Already on 13 January he went on a tour to Africa, during which he visited Egypt, Tunisia, Togo and Côte d’Ivoire. Let us note that the first two countries belong to the Arab world, which today is literally shaken by the Palestinian-Israeli conflict that has just erupted.
The latter demonstrates the potential for an unpredictable scenario involving almost all the world’s leading powers. Among them, China is particularly concerned about this negative situation, since one of the main routes of China’s global Belt and Road Initiative project, of which the Arab countries themselves are direct participants, passes through the Arab World region.
This time, however, the first trip abroad this year for the Chinese Foreign Minister was not limited to the African continent. From Côte d’Ivoire, Wang Yi travelled to Latin America, where China’s presence is becoming no less visible than in Africa.
Meanwhile, the situation in a number of countries located here, which are more or less always subject to some degree of turbulence, has recently become particularly acute. In Argentina, after an extravagant president came to power at the end of last year, it began to develop in a direction that cannot but provoke wariness in the PRC. That is why the urgent assessment of what is happening in Latin America, as they call it, “on the spot”, was apparently one of the main goals of the first trip abroad of the head of the country’s foreign policy department. Here he visited Brazil, the largest country on the continent (and Argentina’s immediate neighbour), as well as Jamaica.
In the comments on the African part of the trip under discussion, some illustrative facts are provided to demonstrate the particular importance for both sides of the process of developing diverse (primarily trade and economic) relations. In particular, it is recalled that for the last 14 years China has been firmly ranked first among Africa’s foreign trade partners. At the end of 2022, the volume of bilateral trade exceeded $280 billion and in the first 7 months of 2023 it increased by another 7.4% compared to the same period of the previous year.
There are remarkable trends in the investment, trade and economic sphere of China-Africa relations. Until now, they were mainly limited to commodity exchange and assistance in solving fundamental problems in African countries, such as underdeveloped (or simply lack of) transport, logistics and social infrastructure.
Recently, however, more and more attention has been paid to the industrialisation of individual countries on the continent. And with an emphasis on the development of the most advanced production processes and the energy facilities that support them. This shift in preferences in bilateral cooperation was outlined by China’s leader Xi Jinping during the latest (15th) BRICS summit held in August this year in Johannesburg, the capital of South Africa, the leading African country.
Most African countries are members of the global Chinese BRI project. At the last (3rd) BRI Forum held last October in Beijing, the African continent was the most strongly represented among other regions of the Global South.
The Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC), formed in 2000, remains the main platform for discussing the whole range of bilateral relations. The last (8th) ministerial-level meeting of FOCAC was held in November 2021 in Dakar, the capital of Senegal. The next similar meeting is due to take place in Beijing this year. A bilateral working group meeting in Beijing in October 2023 was devoted to its preparation.
This is the initial “factual basis” on which Wang Yi relied during his regular trip to the African continent. Commenting on the outcome, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Mao Ning said the event was fully in line with the overall course “proposed by President Xi Jinping to put into practice the principles of sincerity, real results, friendship and good faith”. It also “shows the importance China attaches to Africa and its firm support” for the development process of the continent’s countries, she said. Which, in turn, “reaffirmed their commitment to the one-China principle.”
This last remark represents one of the main conditions imposed on any potential partner who is about to develop a favourable relationship with a second world power. This includes both Latin American countries visited by Wang Yi during the second part of the tour under discussion. He did not fail to mention this fact during his talks with the leaders of both Brazil and Jamaica.
These are seemingly incomparable (in terms of different indicators of “weight”) countries, which, it seems, cannot be separated by a comma when listing partners in the system of Beijing’s relations with the outside world. Nevertheless, each of them has its own specific significance for China.
It should be noted that until recently, a number of Central American and Caribbean countries maintained diplomatic relations with Taiwan. Today, only Guatemala remains, and Jamaica, which was the first country in the Americas to join the BRI project, is no longer one of them. Another indication of the growing importance for Beijing of a stable presence in Central America and the Caribbean was the week-long visit to China by the prime minister of the tiny state of Antigua and Barbuda. The visit began immediately after Wang Yi concluded his tour.
But still (and despite the above reservations) the main object of his visit to Latin America was Brazil, i.e. the largest country on the continent, a member of BRICS and recently quite a positive partner of the PRC (as well as the Russian Federation). In a system of relations between countries of such importance in world processes, there is inevitably the widest set of issues to be discussed on every appropriate occasion.
They are listed in the comments of Wang Yi’s talks with his Brazilian counterpart Mauro Vieira and President Lula da Silva. At the same time, the positive shift in bilateral relations, which was marked after the current centre-left government came to power in early 2023 as a result of the victory in the general elections held in the country in autumn 2022, is underlined. The first trip abroad of the new Brazilian president was a visit to China in April 2023. And this year we can confidently predict the holding of events of the highest level on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the establishment of bilateral diplomatic relations.
Which, we repeat, will take place in conditions of a more complicated, to put it mildly, general political situation on the continent. Once again, let us refer at least to the fact of the change of power in Argentina, which was met, of course, without enthusiasm in China, where “some problems” are expected to arise in bilateral relations.
Finally, it should be noted that China’s main geopolitical opponents do not take the position of outside observers of its growing activity in various regions of the “Global South”, which is becoming critically important. In recent years, Japan, the EU and, of course, the United States have become more active here.
Already at the moment of completion of the first foreign tour of the Chinese Foreign Minister, the U.S. State Department informed that the head of this department, E. Blinken, was going to the same African continent. It was the fact of the immediate US reaction to Wang Yi’s tour discussed here that drew the attention of the PRC.
Thus, the first significant events of the year that has barely begun once again confirm the aggravation of the struggle of the leading world players for influence on the main regions of the “Global South”.
We regret to state this. For in addition to other negatives that this trend brings to the overall picture of the global political situation, it means that the resources accumulated in the world will not be spent in the most rational way in the countries of the same “Global South”. These countries are in obvious need of external assistance.
Vladimir TEREKHOV, an expert on the problems of the Asia-Pacific region, especially for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”