President Samia Suluhu Hassan became the first African president to visit Xi Jinping after the latter clinched his third term in office. Videos circulating on social media show Samia receiving a grand reception, leading one commentator in one Whatsapp group to wonder: “How could [the late President John] Magufuli snub these kinds of treatments?”
A headline in one of Tanzania’s national newspapers went as far as to suggest that relations between the two countries are now set to be as good as during the era of Mao Zedong, the founder of modern China. Well, I think that is just an illusion.
During that era, Tanzania’s founding President Julius Nyerere is said to have visited China 13 times in his life. China supported the construction of the Tanzania-Zambia (TAZARA) Railway, which cost over $400 million back then – equivalent to over $2 billion today – becoming China’s largest overseas foreign-aid project.
Truth is, relations between Tanzania and China can never be even as good as they were 10 years ago, let alone in the 1970s.
We, Tanzanians, tend to think of our country as so special and exceptional, that even when we fumble with our foreign policy, somehow the world would stop and wait for us to regain our senses and reset our relations. This, of course, is a topic for another day!
When President Xi Jinping came to Tanzania in 2013 as the second country – after Russia – on his official tour after taking office, it was the year when China had launched its mega infrastructure project, the Belt and Road Initiative.
Tanzania, with its abundant natural resources and its geostrategic advantage in the region and the continent at large, was obviously going to be on top of Xi’s itinerary. But a lot has happened since then.
Here at home, we managed to have a paranoid anti-globalist president who frustrated many of China’s engagements with Tanzania.
Meanwhile, China has had a pretty bad experience with many of its overseas loans the country has found itself busy managing what has unexpectedly become a debt crisis.
China’s spending spree has turned pretty sour. From Sri Lanka to Zambia and Kenya, China has had to renegotiate many of its debts which have involved writing off some, differing payment schedules on others and/or reduction of interest rates.
Because of this dire situation, the country has now shifted its focus from lending to more on avoiding default.
The war in Ukraine and the COVID-19 pandemic haven’t made things any easier, especially for the country which embarked on a strict ‘zero-COVID’ policy.
As the United States names China its number one foreign policy concern, Xi’s priorities in his third term in office both at home and abroad have shifted significantly, including a sooner-than-thought-before reunification of Taiwan.
Yes, President Samia’s trip to Beijing was symbolic, but its actual impact will hardly match the grand reception she received. And this has nothing to do with her negotiation skills but is simply a case of bad timing.
President Samia is highly likely to have sought support for mega infrastructure projects such as the Standard Gauge Railway and the Julius Nyerere Hydropower Plant and Dam, both hugely significant to appease her predecessor’s fanatical base.
She also almost certainly attempted to lure Xi in reconsidering financing the Bagamoyo Port Project, an absolutely crucial project for her own legacy as the Head of State.
Unfortunately, China just isn’t spending as much on mega infrastructure projects such as ports, roads and railways as it used to.
The country has realised that a lot of the Belt and Road investment hasn’t made much economic sense, forcing it to rethink its lending spree. As its economic model shifts, China finds its old model of infrastructure-driven financing loans unsustainable.
It has, however, maintained its support of soft diplomacy, especially between its Communist Party of China (CCP) and the ruling Chama cha Mapinduzi (CCM), as symbolized by the construction of a political leadership training college in Kibaha, the
Mwalimu Julius Nyerere Leadership School.
As part of the agreements between China and Tanzania following recent Samia’s visit, China promised to renovate the TAZARA railway. Now, honestly, this has more symbolism for China than any significant economic advantage to either Tanzania or Zambia.
The two countries also agreed that Tanzania would export its agricultural produce to China, which is a nice gesture by the host, but there’s no guarantee that Tanzanian farmers will take advantage of it and benefit from the offer.
While China has over $4 billion worth of exports to Tanzania, the latter’s value of export to China stands at less than $400 million.
Of course, Tanzania and Africa at large will remain crucial allies for China. The continent’s resources, especially for renewable energy, are badly needed in China.
READ MORE: What China Did Right That Africa Did Not
President Xi also desperately needs the continent’s backup to strengthen his support over the question of Taiwan’s status, which has emerged as one of his top priorities in this third term.
But times have changed. The onus is on us to actually find stronger propositions, and sharpen our bargaining skills when dealing with China, rather than being fooled by grand state receptions when our leaders visit Beijing.
Sammy Awami is an independent journalist and analyst based in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. He is available at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter as @awamisammy. These are the writer’s own opinions and do not necessarily reflect the viewpoints of The Chanzo Initiative. Want to publish in this space? Contact our editors at email@example.com for further inquiries.