Uganda: China's Shaky Dance With Uganda

Analysis — Chinese Foreign minister Wang Yi has been on a five-nation tour in Africa that started on Jan.04 and took him to Nigeria, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Botswana, Tanzania and Seychelles.

The visit is in line with the ministry's 30-year diplomatic tradition by Chinese foreign ministers of paying New Year visits to Africa since 1991 and Uganda, which has many major projects hoping for Chinese financing, would possibly have been glad to be on the itinerary.

With the Chinese economy having taken a hit from the pandemic, there's concern in African capitals that lending will dry up or decrease significantly.

President Yoweri Museveni is increasing featuring less in China-Africa arrangements. He did not participate in the Extraordinary China-Africa Summit on Solidarity against COVID-19 jointly held by President Xi Jinping and several African leaders.

Museveni was equally absent when Chinese President Xi Jinping presided over a high-profile China-Africa summit on solidarity against COVID-19 in Beijing in June last year. Leaders of African countries, as well as the secretary-general of the United Nations and the director-general of the World Health Organisation attended the meeting.

President Cyril Ramaphosa of South Africa attended together with Senegalese President Macky Sall, Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi, President of the Democratic Republic of the Congo Felix Tshisekedi, Algerian President Abdelmadjid Tebboune, and Gabonese President Ali Bongo Ondimba. Others were Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta, Malian President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, Niger's President Mahamadou Issoufou, Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari, Rwandan President Paul Kagame, Zimbabwean President Emmerson Mnangagwa, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, and Chairperson of the African Union Commission Moussa Faki Mahamat.

"We pledge that once the development and deployment of COVID-19 vaccine is completed in China, African countries will be among the first to benefit," Xi told them.

Since early March, China has provided medical supplies, including test kits and medical protective gear to more than 50 African countries as well as the African Union , and it has also sent seven medical teams to the continent to share treatment and prevention experience and help train local medical staff, according to a recent government white paper.

China said it has suspended debt repayments for 77 developing countries and regions, as it's working with other G20 members to implement the debt relief initiative for low-income countries mostly in Africa. China has also pledged to accelerate the building of the Africa CDC headquarters to help the continent ramp up its disease preparedness and control capacity.

Uganda needs China

With increasing calls for sanctions against the Museveni government by influential human rights, freedom, and democracy campaigners and legislators in Washington, Museveni could be keen to ensure strong economic and financial ties with China.

Uganda's oil export project which is Museveni's legacy programme is heavily dependent on Chinese goodwill. The China National Offshore Oil Company (CNOOC) has a 33.33% stake in developing an export pipeline with the French oil major Total. In a surprise move last April, CNOOC decided against exercising its pre-emptive rights to acquire an addition shareholding from the 33.33 per cent Tullow Oil stake floated to Total E&P. The lack of interest was a setback for Ugandan negotiators who had hoped that CNOOC would counterbalance Totals growing control over its crude oil assets.

By some calculations, Uganda needs $13.6 billion to invest in its crude project; $6 billion for upstream, $3.6 billion for the EACOP, and $4 billion for a 60,000 barrel per day refinery. China has supported infrastructure development and technology transfer. Huawei laid the fibre optic cable network in most of Uganda.

China's Exim Bank is also being courted by Museveni to finance the construction of the country's 271-kilometre-long Standard gauge railway which has stalled for years.

Significance of Wang visit

China has for years placed the African continent atop its diplomatic agenda and schedules the foreign minister's first overseas trips there. In 2020 Wang visited Egypt, Eritrea, Djibouti, Burundi and Zimbabwe. In 2019 Wang's tour took him on official visits to African Union headquarters in Ethiopia, Burkina Faso, The Gambia and Senegal. In 2018 Wang went to Angola, Gabon, Rwanda, and São Tomé and Príncipe and in 2017 visited Madagascar, Zambia, Tanzania, Congo-Brazzaville and Nigeria.

China always pushes for stronger coordination with Africa on implementing the outcomes of the 2018 FOCAC Beijing Summit and the consensus reached by the leaders. The pitch also speaks of working for peace, stability and development in Africa.

Since 1991, Africa has been the destination for the Chinese foreign minister's first overseas visit each year for 30 years in a row. According to the Chinese, the continuation of this tradition speaks volumes about the high priority China consistently attaches to developing its ties with Africa as well as ever stronger China-Africa friendship.

This year marks the 21st anniversary of the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) starting in 2000. Under FOCAC, several agreements on trade, security and development were signed during the 2018 FOCAC Beijing Summit.

The centerpiece was a US$60 billion commitment from President Xi Jinping in a mix of grants, loans and special funds for Africa, with Chinese companies encouraged to make at least $10 billion of investment on the continent through 2021.

The cooperation is designed to advance China's Belt and Road Initiative but Wang usually wades into intra-Africa political issues such as the tension over Libya between Egypt and its Arab-nation partners and Turkey last year.

Wang also visited Djibouti, where both China and the United States have military bases. At the time, Eritrea was making peace overtures to longtime Chinese partner Ethiopia. President Isaias Afwerki had just completed a visit to Ethiopia where he laid the foundation stone of a new Eritrean embassy.

This year Wang finds a continent desperate for Covid-19 vaccines, medical supplies and debt relief. Wang's visit also came just days before a new government sets up in Washington. There's concern that US-China rivalry in Africa will only escalate.

Wang's visit to Nigeria is being seen as an effort to patch up relations with Abuja which have faced serious strain in 2020. In months following the outbreak of Covid-19, Nigeria has seen an increase in anti-China sentiment after reports that Africans in Guangzhou had been discriminated against.

African envoys in a joint letter to Beijing demanded an explanation for the maltreatment of Africans in China and the Speaker of Nigeria's parliament summoned China's envoy to Abuja and berated him publicly.

At the end of April, Nigeria's House of Representatives passed a motion targeting Chinese immigrants and businesses and a push for a review of Chinese lending to the country since 2000 with a view to cancel those deemed costly. China has lent the country a sizeable chunk of money for infrastructure building. In December last year Nigeria began operations for the Lagos-Ibadan railway built by China Civil Engineering Construction Corporation (CCEC).

In Tanzania, it has been reported, Wang was possibly looking to restart talks on the Bagamoyo port deal which have stalled for a long time. Negotiations between the two sides broke down in 2019 after failure to agree on the terms. With President John Magufuli's re-election being criticised by the West, Beijing sensed an opportunity to forge even closer ties with Tanzania.

In the Democratic Republic of Congo, Wang will be dealing with President Felix Tshisekedi's government which enjoys closer ties with Washington. Wang's visit to Kinshasa could be looking to facilitate the entry of more Chinese firms into the country's mines, which are increasingly the subject of strategic competition between China and the United States in central Africa.

The DRC is by far the world's largest producer of cobalt, accounting for roughly 60 percent of global production, according to the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Cobalt is a critical element used to make batteries for electric vehicles.

President Mokgweetsi Masisi of Botswana has been friendlier to China and less controversial compared to his predecessor Ian Khama.

Wang is said to have visited the Seychelles because as India's influence grows globally, countries such as the Seychelles and Mauritius have increasingly fallen in New Delhi's orbit. China is looking to cut away at Delhi's influence in Victoria with Wang Yi's visit.

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