The Prime Minister, Shri Narendra Modi in a bilateral meeting with the President of the People's Republic of China, Mr. Xi Jinping, in Tashkent, Uzbekistan on June 23, 2016.

China Faces A Backlash In The West, Xi Needs Africa More Than Ever

Chinese leader Xi Jinping made preserving diplomatic ties in Africa a centerpiece of his opening address at the World Health Assembly earlier this week, as Beijing faces a backlash among some Western democracies for its role in the coronavirus pandemic.

With the traditional big donors to Africa, such as Europe and the United States, focused on containing the continued spread of the virus, Xi moved to position China, which has its own outbreak largely under control, as the global leader in health.
At the gathering of World Health Organization (WHO) member states, Xi pledged to give $2 billion to the WHO over the next two years to assist developing economies — and reminded Africa that its long relationship with Beijing had seen Chinese aid help treat 200 million Africans over the past seven decades.
Xi committed to helping 30 hospitals in Africa, setting up a pan-African health authority on the continent and supporting an affordable vaccine there, once one has been found.
But Xi’s offerings weren’t just about taking the lead in Africa: they were about securing support at a critical and precarious juncture in Beijing’s relationship with the continent.
While no African head of state has yet publicly criticized China’s response to the virus, earlier this week the African group backed a European Union-drafted resolution co-signed by more than 100 countries calling for an independent inquiry into the coronavirus pandemic.
That comes after African ambassadors last month wrote an unprecedented joint letter to Beijing demanding answers for the mistreatment of African residents in China during the coronavirus crisis.
As the coronavirus leaves China increasingly isolated on the world stage, Xi’s speech made it clear how vital the support of African nations is to Beijing.

Important diplomatic allies

China’s diplomatic ties with African nations stretch back to the mid-20th century when Beijing befriended newly independent countries as it tried to position itself as leader of the developing world, and counter US and USSR influence during the Cold War era.
Since then, Africa has proved to be a critical diplomatic bloc for Beijing — the bid by the People’s Republic of China (PRC) to expel the Republic of China (Taiwan) from the United Nations Security Council in 1971 succeeded largely because of the support of Africa, which provided 26 of the 76 votes it needed to win. That move allowed the PRC to take Taiwan’s position both on the General Assembly and as one of the five permanent members of the Security Council.
In subsequent decades, when China has faced fierce criticism from the West, African countries have continued to stand beside Beijing.
After the Tiananmen Square crackdown, China succeeding in persuading several African countries to sign an agreement saying the clashes, in which Chinese troops fired on and killed civilians, “permitted no foreign interference.
As Western nations threatened to boycott Beijing’s 2008 Olympic Games over concerns of human rights abuses in China, African countries continued to support the event.
But Beijng’s so-called mask diplomacy has received a mixed reception in the West — in March, the European Union’s foreign policy chief Josep Borrell warned about the “struggle for influence through spinning and the ‘politics of generosity.'”
In Africa, governments have welcome the aid.
“Africa is home to a plethora of developing countries desperate for support to combat the health and economic impact of Covid-19,” says Ovigwe Eguegu, a Nigerian international affairs analyst.
This is not the first time China has showed up to help Africa during a public health crisis. By November 2014, China had given 750 million yuan (then $123 million) in aid to the global Ebola response. While that was Beijing’s largest ever response to an international humanitarian crisis it was still no match for Western donors. The US, UK, and Germany donated more than $3.6 billion by December 2015.
But with the US and parts of Europe among the world’s worst coronavirus-hit countries in terms of case numbers, US President Donald Trump’s public call for a cut to WHO funding, and both Europe and the US suffering economically, some African states arguably have little option but to be welcome China’s assistance.
And more recently, as the US applied pressure on telecommunications company Huawei, accusing it of being a Trojan horse for the Chinese government, key African economies including Kenya and South Africa have welcomed its presence.
“Each time the US or the West ramps up its criticism of China, the Chinese government turns back to its long-time, all-weather friendship in Africa,” says Lina Benabdallah, assistant professor in politics at Wake Forest University, specializing in China-Africa relations.
“Beijing needs its African partners to boost its image that China is not isolated or without any friends on the international arena.”
As the United States in particular pushes the narrative that Beijing is to blame for the spread of Covid-19, Africa’s support is once again vital as Beijing pushes the counter-narrative that after beating the virus it is now a leader in global health.
In March and April, China exported 71 billion yuan ($10 billion) in medical supplies around the world, including about 28 billion masks, to help fight coronavirus.

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