BEIJING -- Every year since 1991, China's foreign minister has chosen Africa for the first overseas trip of the year, symbolizing the importance Beijing places on its partnerships there.
Despite cutting back on international travel recently due to the coronavirus pandemic, Foreign Minister Wang Yi is carrying on the tradition, embarking on a five-nation African tour that takes him to Nigeria, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Botswana, Tanzania and the Seychelles through Saturday.
It comes just ahead of incoming U.S. President-elect Joe Biden's inauguration and underscores Beijing's intent to bolster traditionally friendly ties with its African partners.
Such African friendships might come in handy for China if the Biden administration steps up scrutiny over its human rights violations.
Seventeen African countries supported China over its treatment of its Muslim minority Uighur population in 2019, when 22 countries including Japan, the U.K. and Australia submitted a joint letter to U.N. Human Rights Council expressing their concern.
Wang's trip is intended to "support African countries in combating the virus and achieving economic recovery, advance [Belt and Road] cooperation and build a closer China-Africa community with a shared future," Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying told reporters Monday.
It comes a month after Japanese Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi visited four African countries -- Tunisia, South Africa, Mozambique and Mauritius. Motegi described the latter three countries as the "the western verge of a Free and Open Indo-Pacific," referring to Japan's joint efforts with the U.S. to counter China's influence in the region.
China has traditionally turned to Africa when it wants to shore up international support. When it joined the United Nations in 1971, it received the backing from 26 African nations. When it secured support from 53 countries over its controversial national security law over Hong Kong at the UNHRC, roughly half of them were from Africa. It succeeded in fending off the 27 critics.
"It is universally acknowledged by the international community that China has contributed to the global human rights cause and counterterrorism efforts," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said in July, following the UNHCR victory.
African support will be crucial for China under Biden's presidency. In November 2019, Biden tweeted that China's internment of nearly one million Uighur Muslims "is among the worst abuses of human rights in the world today." The U.S. cannot be silent, the then-candidate said. "We must speak out against this oppression and relentlessly defend human rights around the world."
The incoming U.S. leader is expected to ramp up pressure on China in cooperation with democratically minded partners.
With this in mind, the Xi-led government has been extending economic and coronavirus-related assistance to Africa. Beijing has reportedly sent medical teams to 15 African countries, including Djibouti, Zimbabwe and South Sudan, to help them with their pandemic response. It granted loan extensions to 12 countries, and forgave interest-free debt held by 15 countries that was due by the end of last year.
"In spite of its own difficulties, China has fully implemented the Debt Service Suspension Initiative and put off debt repayment totaling over $1.3 billion," Xi announced at the virtual Group of 20 summit in November. Though he did not provide a breakdown, much of the amount is believed to be in Africa.