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Beijing turns table on debt trap diplomacy claims

On his January swing through Africa, China's new foreign minister has scored with subtle diplomacy, dropping the wolf warrior tactics favoured by some of his colleagues

Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang's remarks that multilateral lenders and commercial creditors should carry the biggest blame for the debt distress of some African states comes as a thinly veiled retort to western critics who accuse China of 'debt trap' diplomacy (AC Vol 63 No 17, Beijing turns around on debt).

The remarks, made during Qin's tour of five African countries – Ethiopia, Gabon, Angola, Benin and Egypt last week – his first since leaving his post as ambassador to Washington to become foreign minister in December – came less than a month after the United States sought to improve its offer to Africa with the promise of US$55 billion of investment into the continent over the next three years (AC Vol 64 No 2, Grand ambitions, little money).

While the US and European Union will not attempt to match the size of Beijing's infrastructure investment in Africa, they are attempting to ramp up their diplomatic and economic relations in Africa, anxious to avoid losing more ground to China.

With all three powers supporting permanent African Union membership of the Group of 20 (G20), as well as a permanent Africa seat on the UN Security Council, the dividing lines between east and west with regard to Africa relations, are likely to centre on the role of international financial institutions (IFIs), that is membership and shareholdings in the IMF and the World Bank. This competition may intensify as both the Washington-based IFIs release their plans for sweeping reforms ahead of their spring meetings.

Another arena for institutional rivalries will be the fight over which countries contribute to the new climate finance fund to compensate the countries hardest hit by extreme weather. The US and EU are insisting China as the biggest emitter of greenhouse gases should contribute. 

But Beijing points to its official status as a developing economy with the world's second biggest population (overtaken by India last year) and its average income per capita which is a fraction of that enjoyed by other G7 countries.

'Africa should be a big stage for international cooperation, not an arena for major countries' competition', said Qin, at a joint press conference with African Union Commission chairman Moussa Faki Mahamat at the new headquarters of the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention in Addis Ababa, financed by China.

Following his meeting with Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, Qin announced a partial cancellation of Ethiopia's debt to China during the visit, though neither side provided any details.

Financial experts interpreted Qin's inclusion of Angola, Benin and Gabon on his itinerary as a signal that Beijing's harbours plans to expand its Belt and Road infrastructure projects into West and Central Africa.

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