China is promoting cooperation with the European Union in Africa on infrastructure and pandemic support as a way to find common ground and restore its damaged ties with the bloc – a move diplomatic observers said could ease pressure on Beijing from Washington’s efforts to woo its allies in Europe.
In an online meeting with his German and French counterparts on Monday, Chinese President Xi Jinping proposed the three countries work together on infrastructure projects in Africa through the Beijing-led Belt and Road Initiative “to create more opportunities for common development”, according to a foreign ministry statement.
He also called on Europe to provide pandemic support to Africa, saying China had provided vaccines to more than 40 African countries and signed debt relief agreements with some of them.
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“It is hoped the European side will increase its support and assistance to Africa, provide more vaccines to African countries in urgent need, help Africa cope with debt pressure, and realise Africa’s economic recovery and green and low-carbon development at an early date,” Xi said.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel later told reporters that one “positive development” from the call was Xi’s signal that China was willing to cooperate with the EU in Africa.
“We will continue talks on how far we can cooperate and how far there are differences,” she said, adding that collaboration could be coordinated through the Compact With Africa programme, launched by Germany during its presidency of the G20 in 2017.
“For the recipient countries in Africa, it’s of course always good if we avoid having many different actors with completely differing approaches,” she said.
Xi’s appeal followed the launch just weeks ago of the G7’s Build Back Better World (B3W) initiative as a counterbalance to China’s belt and road plan, which has funded railways, highways, ports and power plants in Africa, Asia and parts of Europe. The US and some European countries have accused Beijing of burdening African countries with loans they can never repay.
Washington has been working to strengthen the transatlantic relationship, with President Joe Biden choosing Europe as his first overseas destination since taking office. During his eight-day trip last month, he reached some consensus with his G7 and Nato allies on confronting China.
Relations between Brussels and Beijing were already strained, with discussions on ratification of their major investment treaty frozen in Europe following tit-for-tat sanctions over allegations of human rights violations by China in its Xinjiang region.
Song Luzheng, an international relations researcher at Shanghai’s Fudan University, said it would be unrealistic to think the disputes and divergences between China and the EU could be resolved by cooperation in Africa. “But cooperation can control antagonism and stabilise ties between the two sides,” he said, adding it could also counterbalance Washington’s efforts to rally its allies against China.
According to Song, it was also an opportunity for China to press for European recognition of its home-grown vaccines. “Europe will need to recognise Chinese vaccines so they can be used in Africa. What’s worth noting is that in the past, Europe was not interested in cooperation with China in Africa, but this time it has released positive signals, because China has vaccines and other materials needed for the pandemic,” he said.
Linda Calabrese, a research fellow and development economist at the Overseas Development Institute in London, said Africa was important to the EU for security issues and concerns about migration, while for China it was about trade and investment.
“It makes sense for China and the EU to cooperate in Africa, rather than to see this as a rivalry,” she said. “Xi is just reminding France and Germany that China is open for partnerships, and they don’t need to choose between China and the US.”
Research fellow Tim Zajontz, from the Centre for International and Comparative Politics at Stellenbosch University in South Africa, said Africa’s prominence in the discussions underlined its geopolitical significance to China and Europe. Their intention to cooperate more closely to advance the continent’s economic development could be understood as an attempt at “mutual containment”, he said.
“Europe is aware that it cannot outcompete Chinese investments in Africa, while China is actively trying to win international support for the belt and road initiative to make it look less driven by Chinese interests,” Zajontz said.
“European decision-makers have realised late how drastically China’s presence in Africa has altered the international relations of a world region which Europe has historically considered her sphere of influence.”
Muhidin Shangwe, a political scientist at the University of Dar es Salaam in Tanzania, said Merkel’s statement indicated a softer approach towards China, after rivalry-driven criticism from the West of its dealings in Africa.
“China understands very well that the West is not a homogenous entity, so you have Europe and the US,” Shangwe said. “It is in the interests of China to show Europe that Chinese are willing to work with Europe and probably hoping it will weaken the US position on China.”
Moritz Weigel, founding director of the Germany-based firm China Africa Advisory, said Germany and France’s commitment to infrastructure development in Africa through the G7’s B3W initiative opened up new opportunities for triangular cooperation with China in this area.
Weigel said cooperation between China, Germany, France, EU and African countries had been on the agenda of Chinese and European leaders for some years, resulting in some projects and even institutional arrangements, such as the Sino-German Centre for Sustainable Development.
“In order for triangular or quadrangular [cooperation] to be successful, it needs to be more driven by African countries. And it needs to move from development cooperation to business,” he said.
Additional reporting by Bloomberg
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