Still on Wang Yi’s visit and the future of Nigeria-China relations

It is no longer news that the Chinese Foreign Affairs Minister, Mr Wang Yi visited Nigeria on January 5, 2021 as part of his country’s annual African tours. But what is new is the embrocation of relations of the visit in the COVID-19 era that has unmasked how unilateral and protectionist the world has become. No advanced nation has sent its high-ranking official to the continent in this challenging time. As a Nigerian policy advisor Ovigwe Eguegu depicts it in the Global Times, “there is no other nation in the world that has shown willingness for such consistent diplomatic engagement with Africa… It feeds the perception among Africans that China makes Africa a priority, the way other partners don’t.”

The visit came at the crossroads of whether or not 2021 would be better than 2020 in terms of alleviation of socio-economic constraints that the pandemic has unleashed. His reception should be regarded as a reassurance that Nigerian government is keen to address the current challenges its citizens are undergoing. It should also be considered as the two partners’ readiness for future engagement, come what may. Though Nigeria was his first port of call, in his itinerary were the Democratic Republic of Congo, Botswana, Tanzania and Seychelles. From the records, it is important to note that Chinese foreign ministers have chosen Africa for their first overseas visit each year since 1991 and such tradition represents how deep the Chinese government considered their bilateral and multilateral relations with the continent.

In his remarks on the strategic position Nigeria occupies in Africa, Mr Wang told President Muhammadu Buhari, “Nigeria, as a major African country, has always occupied an important position in China’s diplomacy with Africa.” Hence “mutual understanding, mutual trust and mutual support” have significantly defined the 50thyear-old diplomatic ties. In the same vein, the visitor expressed promising remarks during his talks with the Nigerian Foreign Minister Geoffrey Onyeama in company of selected ministers. The teams also addressed the press. But the hallmark of the visit appears not to be the six-billion-Naira (100 million Renminbis) donation to Nigeria but the signing of a memorandum of understanding on the establishment of the China-Nigeria Intergovernmental Committee to guide future cooperation and the seven important consensuses reached.

These consensuses are: to strengthen cooperation against the pandemic; setting up of an intergovernmental committee to advance mutually beneficial cooperation in various fields, to deepen the Belt and Road cooperation by aligning both countries’ development plans; to accelerate Nigeria’s industrialization and independently capabilities through vigorously promoting the construction of key projects; extending cooperation into areas including digital economy and green economy in order to achieve diversified development; to deepen military and security cooperation to enhance national security; and, to closely coordinate regional and international affairs, practice multilateralism, and safeguard the common interests of developing countries. But what do these consensuses represent or hold for brighter future relations between Nigeria and China?

Firstly, the initiation of the consensuses into the cooperation brings to the fore the readiness of Nigeria and China to embrace broader prospects for greater impact on peace, security and development of Nigeria. Nigeria is going through fundamental challenges from violent extremism, banditry, farmers-herders conflict, kidnapping, cultism and other nefarious activities, which are mostly driven by unemployment, poverty, ignorance, marginalization, extremism and so forth. If both parties consciously work through the cardinal agreements, then one could be assured that the underlying drivers of socio-economic and political threats and challenges would be mitigated. This is why the Intergovernmental Committee is relevant and appropriate to actualize the goals and objectives of the consensuses.

Secondly, despite their turbulent history and the wide range of problems of nationbuilding as well as changes in international situations, Nigeria and China remained committed to their ties. It is a commendable goodwill gesture, perhaps coming at this particular period in time when Nigeria is expanding the economic, industrial and infrastructure base to create needed opportunities for its burgeoning youth population. There has been quite a number of economic zones, roads, bridges, ports and other projects like railways, currency swap, satellite launching and electricity are ongoing or in the pipeline. So hosting a diplomat in the capacity of State Councillor and Foreign Minister of China could accelerate the government’s plans and processes towards tangible results and success. But it is very important for the government and other local investors to take advantage of the opportunity.

Thirdly, the visit came amid the turbulent time of a once-in-a-century pandemic, which signifies a great resilience and solidarity both nations have demonstrated for each other for decades. The Chinese taglines of equal friendship,equalpartnersand prosperity in solidarityhave become permanently affixed to the relations. For example, President Buhari, while pleased with the results of the 50 year-old relations, acknowledged that it was only China that bought Nigerian oil at the time its price fell in the global market. Just in this COVID-19 pandemic when nations are paying attention to their own people, China sent medical team and supplies to Nigeria in 2020. Besides overcoming the rising unilateralism and protectionism in the world where no single hegemon to manage the multiplicity of global issues that required concreted action, this diplomatic gesture means that coronavirus or any other pandemic cannot hinder the friendship and cooperation both have fostered. Putting Nigeria in his itinerary might be an omen of recovery.

Likewise, Nigeria has also supported China as attested to by Mr Wang when he thanked Nigeria “for siding with China on issues concerning China’s core interests.” For instance, Nigeria voted for China in its bid to become a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council. The establishment and development of the Forum of China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) since twenty years ago can also be attributed to the Nigeria’s support. The bilateral cooperation has witnessed robust engagement and exchanges in trade and investment. From hindsight, if one considers the developed infrastructure and employment opportunities that the Chinese have facilitated in the country, which now received a boost with the visit, it is reasonable to project that the visit will portend better outcomes for the two countries.

Fourthly, as the largest economy and the most populous country in Africa, Nigeria needs strategic support in which China can offer. The visit was a strong boost to Nigeria-China strategic partnership and friendly cooperation. Science and technology, economy, security, agriculture, mining, education and other development fields are areas where Nigeria should seriously transmit the consensuses to lift its citizens out of poverty, ignorance and insecurity. Currently, the bilateral trade between Nigeria and China stands at about US$20 billion, with Nigeria exporting about US$2 billion to China in the form of mineral oils and fuels, oil seeds, plastics, rubber, animal products, and fruits. China exports machinery and mechanical products, IT computers, mobile phones and digital technologies. The extent of future relations will be determined by how their trade imbalance and opportunity gaps are bridged. The Intergovernmental Committee has a lot to do in this regard.

Fifthly, the shared similarities between two countries in population and high mobility of citizens and diversity that have entrenched the two together will receive a stimulus with Mr Wang’s visit. It will serve the common interests of the nations that their peoples who travel in large numbers for trade, investment, education and leisure encounter minimal obstacles in traveling, residence and establishment. Already, notable global airlines such as the Emirates, Qatar Airways, Ethiopia Airlines and Kenya Airways are profiting from the large traffic on the Nigeria-China routes. If that were so, why wouldn’t the two partners make life and business comfortable in each other’s country? As historical as that visit was, both sides should continue to advance each other’s interests for the overall benefits of their citizens. How citizens are treated will define the future relations.

As the year 2021 marks the 50thanniversary of their diplomatic ties, Mr Wang’s visit was expected to provide further initiatives that would stabilize China’s policies and regulations against a backdrop of increasing world disorder. This becomes necessary, as Nigeria has suffered from the decline of crude oil and raw material prices in the global market. Besides the development roadmap of both Forum of China-Africa Cooperation, and Belt and Road Initiative, the focus of the two partners should be on climate change and availability of COVID-19 vaccines that will be an example for others. Strengthening communication and cooperation will enhance collaboration in combating the virus. Though China does not attached political conditions to their projects, but it does not mean it should not work together with Nigerian government and officials to promote peace and security of their host communities.

Similarly, the future relations would be viewed from how China obeys the nation’s labour laws and respect the local customs. Fortunately, Mr Wang cautioned Chinese companies operating in Nigeria over this fear. Deepening the unity that has stood the test of times should be the focus of the future relations. China should keep the 31-straight-year tradition of visiting Africa in New Year so as to continue to underscore its commitment to the peoples of the continent. Liu Haifang, the executive director of the Beijing-based Centre for African Studies buttressed this view, saying, “The continent is a platform for China to showcase its responsibility as a big power.”

Africa, and Nigeria in particular, should translate this commitment into desired results for their people whose expectations of such foreign relations are always high but reasonable. Their general perception of the relations is that there must be increased standards of living and development for them since their government is obtaining loans, grants, and other material and technical supports from China. The inability of the diplomatic relations to turn their lives around as well as benefit from the people-to-people exchanges, prosperity and ease the trade imbalance would be deemed as a failure and unworthy of having.

While building towards a greater common understanding and a more peaceful existence of their people, the Nigeria-China cooperation should come to that shared reality of closer community. In short, Nigerian stakeholders, while laying groundwork for future exchanges in which the Chinese have incentivized, they must ensure that Nigerians are not left behind from the gains of the relations. When such is done, the strategic visit coming at the beginning of every year to Africa would be regarded to have fostered healthy and fruitful Nigeria-China relations. That moment was potent. Nigeria must seize the opportunity it offered to better the lives of the people because they do not come everyday.

Dr Babatunde is a fellow, peacebuilding and evidence practitioner at the Nigeria’s Institute for Peace and Conflict Resolution, Abuja. [email protected]

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