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.
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.
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.
In subsequent decades, when China has faced fierce criticism from the West, African countries have continued to stand beside Beijing.
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.
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.
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.
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.
An early rupture in relations
Despite Beijing’s continued publicity drive, the pandemic affects African lives directly — and from the beginning of the crisis there were signs that the virus could fracture the China-Africa relationship.
In late February, there was uproar in Kenya when a China Southern Airlines landed in Nairobi from mainland China, which was still in the throes of the pandemic, and 239 passengers were allowed to disembark without testing
That sparked calls in the country for flights between China and Africa to be suspended while China got its outbreak under control.
“The maltreatment of Africans in Guangzhou is a stain on the Africa-China relationship,” says Eguegu, the Nigeria-based international affairs analyst. “By focusing on Africa (at the WHA), President Xi appears to be signaling to Africans that Africa is a priority for China.
“That might reassure many African leaders, but (the) majority of Africans who were offended by the videos and pictures from Guangzhou won’t hear this speech.”
Before the crisis
Before the Covid-19 crisis hit, China’s investment in Africa seemed to be entering a new, more cautious phase.
And while the 2018 Forum for China Africa Cooperation (FOCAC), a triennial summit of African heads of state with China, saw China pledge $60 billion in aid, investment and loans to Africa, that number was a flattening of the curve of upwards Chinese investment.
Generally, Beijing had made a bigger pledge to Africa at each summit since FOCAC began in 2000. The pledge in 2015, for example, was three times the figure announced at the 2012 forum.
Next year, China and African states will reconvene for the next FOCAC, this time in Senegal, social distancing allowing, and no doubt the figure Beijing commits to will be closely analyzed, as African nations try to bring their economies through the havoc wreaked by the virus.
So far, the African continent itself does not appear to have been as severely hit by the coronavirus pandemic as the US, and its former colonial powers, such as the UK, France and Italy.
But as the virus rages in pockets of the continent — the vice-president of South Sudan now has the virus — it remains to be seen what the coronavirus toll will be there.
A true coronavirus crisis in Africa might not only test China’s performance as a world leader in health, but also how deep the equal friendship Beijing has repeatedly claimed to share with Africa truly runs.