As Secretary of State John Kerry wraps up his four nation visit to Africa and Commerce Secretary, Penny Pritzker prepares to visit Ghana, Nigeria and Ethiopia later this month, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang is in Africa this week on his first visit to the continent since he was voted into the position last year.
The visit begins in Ethiopia and continues on to Kenya, Angola, and Nigeria where the Premier will make an official visit to the country and attend the World Economic Forum on Africa. The visits to Kenya, Angola, and Nigeria are unsurprising given the status of those countries and the resources that they have on offer. It is the first stop in Ethiopia that may reveal the most interesting indications of what can be expected in the coming years for China’s engagement in Africa in general and Ethiopia specifically. In Ethiopia, Premier Li will give a keynote speech on the China-Africa relationship and seek to deepen ties with a country which has received increasing focus from the Chinese government and private sector.
Premier Li will detail his vision on the way forward in a speech on China’s Policy towards Africa which will be delivered during his official visit to the African Union headquarters (which was built with considerable financial assistance from China) in Addis Ababa. In the run-up to the trip, the Premier and senior government officials have previewed the policy and it appears designed to confront directly the criticism that China has had a myopic, exploitative focus on Africa’s natural resources.
At a press briefing on the trip, Deputy Minister of Commerce Zhang Xiangchen said that China is now “paying more attention to livelihood issues. […] Over the past years, China focused on building landmark architecture. We will still be doing so in the future, but we will also keep a closer look at issues relating to the public.” In line with this shift, senior officials from the Foreign and Commerce Ministries have stated that Premier Li will sign more than 60 agreements not only in the energy sector but also sectors connected to people’s livelihood such as agriculture, health and sanitation, and education.
In addition to visiting the AU, Premier Li will be in Ethiopia for an official visit. Since 2004, China has shown increasing interest in the country. China became Ethiopia’s largest trading partner in 2011 and Ethiopia became the top destination for Chinese foreign direct investment in Africa in 2013. Also in 2013, Ethiopians elected Dr. Mulatu Teshome as president. An alumnus of Peking University who has “a good understanding of China and speaks the language,” Dr. Teshome and the Ministers in his government have held a number of high-level talks with senior Chinese government officials about “the importance of relations with China to continue the contribution to Ethiopia’s growth.”
The Ethiopian State Minister of Industry has been particularly keen for the Chinese private sector to support Ethiopia’s ambitions in the manufacturing sector. The country is poised for “evolution into an important manufacturing centre” and offers “a competitive advantage over Asian counterparts in light manufacturing.” In addition to its abundant natural resources and lower labor and other manufacturing costs, Ethiopia also has access to the preferential trade tariffs afforded by the U.S.’s African Growth and Opportunity Act, the EU’s Everything but Arms treaty, and comparable treaties with regional markets.
These features already have caught the attention of Huajian, one of China’s largest shoe exporters. Last year, the company’s vice-president announced her goal to make Ethiopia “a global hub for the shoe industry.” In partnership with the China-Africa Development Fund, a private equity fund owned by the China Development Bank, Huajian will invest $2 billion in the next ten years to create “a light manufacturing special economic zone in Ethiopia, creating employment for around 100,000 Ethiopians.” Expanding, or even shifting, Chinese manufacturing operations to Ethiopia will certainly be on the agenda of the scheduled “seminar with businessmen from China and African countries.”