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Why Wang Yi’s Boring, Uneventful Tour of Africa Was So Important

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi (left) made an unexpected stopover to Kenya on his most recent African tour. Before boarding the Chinese financed and built Standard Gauge Railway in Nairobi, Wang met with local Chinese and Kenyan SGR employees. Photo via Zhao Lijian.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi is on his way back home today after wrapping a busy weekend visiting three African countries to wrap up his latest African tour. He also made an unscheduled stop in Nairobi.

For all intents and purposes, this was a low key, uneventful tour. There were no major announcements and the visit barely if at all, was covered by the international media. But maybe that’s exactly why it was so important. These high-level Chinese visits have become rather routine over the years precisely because they happen so often. Every year since 1991, the foreign minister makes his first overseas trip of the new year to Africa and then over the course of the year, one after another, senior Chinese officials from the president himself to various ministers to provincial governors all invariably have Africa on their annual travel agenda.

Contrast this with the United States, European countries, and even Japan, where ministerial or cabinet-level visits to Africa are much less frequent and a presidential/prime ministerial visit is even rarer.

In Washington, Paris or even Brussels African stakeholders have to fight mightily to get their issues on the agenda, and even then they often have to frame it within some other context that involves “challenging China’s rise,” “containing Russian influence” or “halting the spread of Huawei technology”, for example.

That is not the case in Beijing.

It’s also interesting to reflect on Wang’s itinerary. Sure, Egypt, Djibouti even Kenya all make sense geopolitically, especially as they’re all key Belt and Road countries. But Burundi, Eritrea, and Zimbabwe? As Cobus van Staden from the South African Institute of International Affairs wondered last week, there must be a larger strategy for how the Chinese pick the countries to visit on these kinds of tours, just that it’s not immediately obvious to outside observers.

Regardless of why Wang went to the countries he did, the key thing to remember here is that he was there. He was present. He showed up. And that matters… a lot. He didn’t just go to the big countries that tend to dominate the continent’s diplomacy, he went off the beaten path to a place like Bujumbura where most readers of this newsletter (including me) probably can’t find on a map without Google’s help.

Diplomacy is indeed transactional, where countries are constantly brokering deals in pursuit of their own national interests, but it’s also highly personal. The relationships that Chinese officials like Wang are building on these trips will pay dividends long into the future and not just between the high-ranking leaders but also among the countless mid-level officials from both sides who closely interact with one another on tours like this.

The bottom line here is that Wang and other Chinese officials are actually showing up in Africa and for that, they deserve credit.

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