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China expands African reach as Eritrea, Guinea-Bissau join belt and road ahead of key regional forum

South China Morning Post logo South China Morning Post 28/11/2021
  • President Xi Jinping to deliver keynote speech via video link at Forum on China-Africa Cooperation ministerial meeting starting on November 29
  • Eritrea deal cements China's foothold in Horn of Africa and Red Sea, while Guinea-Bissau access will boost its maritime interests along West African coast

Eritrea and Guinea-Bissau have joined the Belt and Road Initiative, President Xi Jinping's trade and infrastructure development plan, ahead of a key Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) meeting starting on Monday.

Eritrea's cooperation is expected to cement China's foothold in the Horn of Africa and the Red Sea, where Beijing has vast interests, ranging from a military base to mega infrastructure projects such as ports and railways.

With Guinea-Bissau joining, Beijing would be able to expand its maritime interests along the West African coastline, observers said.

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On Thursday, the Chinese ambassador to Eritrea, Cai Ge, and Eritrean Foreign Minister Osman Saleh signed a belt and road memorandum of understanding on behalf of their governments.

A day earlier, Guinea-Bissau also joined the initiative, a move that "will not only promote exchanges in various fields but also mark a new chapter in relations between the two countries", according to Wu Peng, director general of the Chinese foreign ministry's -African affairs department.

Under the belt and road strategy, China has funded the construction of highways, railways and power plants across Africa.

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In the Horn of Africa, it funded and built a railway line running from Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa to the Port of Djibouti on the Red Sea. It set its first overseas military base in Djibouti and also funded mega ports and port terminals in the country.

China has also funded several other projects in Ethiopia, Kenya and Sudan but the worsening security situation in the Horn of Africa, especially in Ethiopia, has worried Beijing.

John Calabrese, director of the Middle East-Asia Project at the American University in Washington, said the Chinese had banked on stability in Ethiopia under Abiy Ahmed - much as many others had. In many ways, Ethiopia seemed to be Beijing's prime candidate to serve as the cornerstone to advance its commercial and geopolitical aims in the Horn of Africa and beyond.

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"As things have unravelled in Ethiopia, Beijing might have decided to further diversify its relations in the Horn by cementing ties with Eritrea," Calabrese said.

As for Eritrea, the recent imposition of US sanctions over its role in the year-long civil war in neighbouring northern Ethiopia, had made it useful, if not necessary for the country to reach out to other willing partners, Calabrese said.

"Beijing is, as ever, opportunistic, perhaps even more so with US-China strategic rivalry having heated up," he said.

On Guinea-Bissau, Calabrese said the Chinese had been very active in the logging sector and deepwater fisheries, and were interested in exploring for oil as well. The country has also been a beneficiary of Beijing's "vaccine diplomacy".

"[The Chinese] have engaged in a few high-profile infrastructure projects, notably a highway construction project. However, the Guinea-Bissau government had hoped to receive a far greater infusion of investment than was immediately forthcoming after Xi's 2018 FOCAC pledge."

Yun Sun, director of the China programme at the Stimson -Centre in Washington, said Eritrea sat at a critical location connecting central and eastern Africa and the Red Sea.

"Together with Djibouti, it blocks Ethiopia in from access to the [Red Sea] coast. It has had internal political instability but has improved in recent years, especially in comparison with Ethiopia," Sun said.

Guinea-Bissau on the West African coast and neighbouring Guinea had also experienced internal turmoil recently, Sun noted.

She said, in general, China pushed for the belt and road to cover and connect more countries in Africa. "Given the upcoming FOCAC meeting ... it should not be surprising that China has tried to rope more countries into its orbit," she said.

The Eighth Ministerial Conference of the FOCAC starts on Monday in Dakar, the capital of Senegal, a West African neighbour of Guinea-Bissau.

Xi will attend the opening ceremony of the two-day forum via video link and deliver a keynote speech while Foreign Minister Wang Yi and Minister of Commerce Wang Wentao will attend in person.

Wang Yi, who is also a state councillor, will pay an official visit to Senegal ahead of the meeting.

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China's foreign ministry said the forum was "another time that President Xi Jinping and African leaders will jointly chart the course for China-Africa relations, following the Johannesburg Summit of FOCAC in 2015, the Beijing Summit in 2018 and the Extraordinary China-Africa Summit on Solidarity against COVID-19 in 2020".

"It will be China's major diplomatic operation facing fellow developing countries this year and a grand gathering of the big, friendly family of China and Africa after the outbreak of Covid-19," ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said on Friday.

The conference comes at a time when Chinese lenders have become more cautious and are demanding bankable feasibility studies amid debt distress in Africa.

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Observers say although Beijing might not be as generous as in past forums when it committed billions of dollars to roads, hydropower dams, hospitals, railways and ports, several deals are still expected to be sealed.

These are likely to include access to Covid-19 vaccines for Africa, e-commerce, incentives for African countries to export agricultural products to China, and debt relief.

However, Sun pointed out that "China will selectively pick projects that will serve China's goal without wasteful lending or commercially questionable deals".

"[The belt and road] is not a faucet that is either turned on or off. Instead, it is a constant flow, but the volume could be adjusted at different times."

Chinese State Councillor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi meets President Felix Tshisekedi of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, in Kinshasa on January 6. Photo: Xinhua © Provided by South China Morning Post Chinese State Councillor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi meets President Felix Tshisekedi of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, in Kinshasa on January 6. Photo: Xinhua

With Eritrea and Guinea-Bissau on board, the number of African countries that have signed belt and road memorandums of understanding with China rises to 48.

Earlier this year, the Democratic Republic of Congo, where Chinese companies have mining interests, and Botswana joined the initiative when Wang Yi visited the two countries.

That now leaves Burkina Faso, eSwatini, Mauritius, Sao Tome and Principe, and Malawi as the only African nations that have not joined the belt and road plan.

Eswatini (formerly Swaziland) has not signed since it recognises Taiwan, which Beijing considers breakaway territory awaiting reunification.

Burkina Faso and Sao Tome and Principe resumed their relations with Beijing after severing ties with Taipei in 2018 and 2016, respectively.

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