Chinese Foreign Minister Mr Wang Yi was in Tanzania for a two-day visit, from January 7 to January 8, 2021. Mr Wang had already visited Nigeria, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Botswana before landing in Chato, a town in Geita, Region of northwestern Tanzania which is President John Magufuli’s hometown. From there, Mr Wang proceeded to Seychelles to conclude his Africa trip, which covered five countries. The arrival of Mr Wang follows a phone call by Chinese President Xi Jinping to his Tanzanian counterpart on December 15, 2020. The visit signals further rapprochement between the two governments after relations had at times been icy as a result of controversies in the context of planned Chinese investments and infrastructure projects.
First of all, it is essential to note that, since 1991, it has become a tradition for Chinese foreign ministers to make Africa their first overseas destination at the beginning of the year. Diplomatically, it is a tradition that suggests Africa and South-South relations are a priority to the Chinese State. That said, unlike previous trips by Chinese Foreign Ministers, Wang Yi’s visit this year took place in genuinely extraordinary times, as the world is grappling with the coronavirus pandemic. Unsurprisingly, the fight against Covid-19 was high up on the agenda in all five countries visited. Mr Wang’s visit and his pledges to support the continent in fighting Covid-19 fits well in official narratives of the Sino-African ‘all-weather friendship’. Not even the unprecedented global health crisis would stand in the way of the friendship! Nevertheless, was Mr Wang’s visit simply an annual routine where Chinese and African leaders meet to exchange diplomatic niceties? Surely not.
African economies have been hard hit due to the global health crisis, and the future does not look less than bleak. The role of China, the world’s second-largest economy, in the road to recovery will be crucial. Mr Wang’s visit was partly an assurance of walking with Africa, hand in hand, on that bumpy road. It begins with China’s promise to make available to Africa affordable Covid-19 vaccines. As the pandemic-induced economic contraction has further curtailed debt sustainability in some African countries, China’s role will also involve debt cancellation or at least some form of debt relief arrangements.
A reliable partner amidst condemnation
As for Tanzania, the country has been in the international spotlight in recent years as local and external actors have raised concerns on democracy in the country. After the October 28 general election in 2020 which led to the reelection of President Magufuli, those concerns heightened. In particular, Western governments expressed worries on the freeness and fairness of the election, calling on the Tanzanian government to investigate allegations of vote-rigging and human rights violations.
In contrary, Beijing was quick in congratulating President Magufuli on his reelection, and the government for conducting a peaceful election. Those congratulatory remarks were repeated by President Xi in the phone call conversation he held with President Magufuli in mid-December. Wang’s visit underscores China’s support for the Magufuli Administration and sends the message that China remains a reliable partner, not least in times when Dodoma has been on the receiving end of Western criticism.
This message is of particular importance because the Magufuli Administration has taken some ‘tough’ decisions against Chinese interests in Tanzania. This includes the decision to award a tender to a Turkish company for the construction of the Standard Gauge Railway (SGR) from Dar es Salaam to Dodoma. It was a decision made immediately after President Magufuli was elected in 2015, scrapping the initial agreement between the government and a Chinese firm over alleged irregularities in the procurement.
The second decision was putting a stop to the construction of the Bagamoyo Port Project. President Magufuli condemned the agreement for the project, describing it as exploitative for its ‘dubious’ terms. It was a slap on the face for China, since the project was announced during President Xi Jinping’s Tanzania visit in 2013 and destined to become an epitome of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in the East African region. Wang Yi’s visit, therefore, is a sign that relations between the countries are normal, or at least it’s a diplomatic push to normalize them. But it also raises questions whether the Bagamoyo project was on the agenda. Given its geo-economic importance for China and both governments’ official insistence that negotiations are ongoing, it is very likely that both parties took advantage of Mr Wang’s visit to iron out their disagreements.
Deals, deals, deals
During the visit, Mr Wang witnessed the signing of a contract between the Tanzanian government and two Chinese companies that will build phase five of the SGR from Mwanza to Isaka, a 314-kilometre stretch. But against the common practice by Chinese companies where project finance and construction come as a package, this time the financier is the Tanzanian government. This comes at the time when China is becoming more cautious about lending on the one hand, and Tanzanian government attempts to use its own resources for such projects. Still, in his speech during the signing ceremony, President Magufuli expressed hopes that China’s banks would agree to fund the outstanding phases three and four that connect Makuputora with Isaka. This development underlines the fact that China’s role in Tanzania’s industrialisation drive is critical.
Wang Yi also unveiled a new vocational training centre in Chato, and announced a $150,000 donation to the facility. It was a sign that skills development is part of the agenda in Tanzania-China relations. President Magufuli also used the moment to urge for the cancellation of outstanding debt to the tune of over $150 million. No guarantees were given by the Chinese side, but it was promised that Beijing will consider the matter sympathetically.
There was little or nothing on the coronavirus pandemic despite the fact it was one of the three declared priority areas of Wang Yi’s Africa tour. President Magufuli maintained his long-held view that Tanzania is corona-free, even citing Wang’s decision not to wear a mask as proof of that. This is despite the fact that the rest of the Chinese delegation wore masks whereas no one on the Tanzanian side did. It was an awkward moment especially because a press release by the Tanzanian presidency following the phone call between leaders of the two countries stated that China had hailed Tanzania’s effort in the fight against the virus. That detail was not captured in a statement by the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
It was a suspicious revelation given the different approaches the two countries have taken in the fight against the pandemic. In May 2020, feelings were hurt when President Magufuli warned against free equipment given as donation by foreign organisations and individuals, saying some of the equipment may have been infected with the virus already. The statement came after Tanzania had received donations from Chinese billionaire Jack Ma in the form of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), face masks and testing kits. According to a Chinese source, the Chinese community in Tanzania was discouraged and abandoned efforts to mobilise more donations. It will be interesting to see Tanzania’s reaction when China finally rolls out its vaccines for African countries.
Wang Yi’s Africa tour can be interpreted as a diplomatic effort to normalize relations with the continent after some turbulent events. Relations seemed to have soured, for instance, after the coronavirus outbreak early last year leading to the ‘Guangzhou incidents,’ which prompted angry reactions from some African diplomats. Following concerns over Chinese debt sustainability, the visit was also an assurance that China is a sympathetic creditor, always ready to listen to indebted African friends. For Tanzania it was more of, first, normalisation of the relations, and, second, showing China’s readiness to take part in the country’s industrialisation drive while promoting the BRI agenda in the process.
Dr Muhidin Shangwe is a lecturer in the Department of Political Science and Public Administration at the University of Dar es Salaam (UDSM). His research area is on China-Africa relations. He can be reached at email@example.com or at @ShangweliBeria. These are writer’s own opinions and do not necessarily reflect the viewpoints of The Chanzo Initiative. You can also have your opinion published on our platform. Contact our editor at firstname.lastname@example.org for further inquiries.