With first FTA, diplomatic trip, China to boost cooperation with Africa in 2021
Published: Jan 03, 2021 07:33 PM

African representatives take pictures outside the venue for the First China-Africa Economic and Trade Expo in Changsha, Central China's Hunan Province on Friday. Photo: VCG

In the first three days of 2021, China launched its first free trade agreement (FTA) with an African nation and China's foreign minister prepared for his first official trip of the year to several African countries, underscoring China's unchanged focus for the new year - continuing to expand its network of trade partners and pursue cooperation with Africa despite disruptions caused by COVID-19.

On Friday, officials from China and Mauritius launched an FTA after three years of negotiations and preparations, marking the first such FTA between China and an African country. 

Containing 17 chapters, the FTA covers a wide range of areas for cooperation, including merchandise trade, investment, intellectual property and e-commerce. The FTA is expected to result in growth of Mauritius' garment, seafood and other products export to China and growth of China's steel, textile and other exports to Mauritius, an official with the Chinese Ministry of Commerce said in a statement.

Additionally, the two countries agreed to expand economic and technological cooperation in several areas, including agriculture, finance, health care and tourism, according to the statement.

While Mauritius' exports to China are relatively small, the FTA will have greater significance for cooperation between China and the broader African continent, according to Bai Ming, deputy director of the Ministry of Commerce's International Market Research Institute.

"Signing a free trade agreement with Mauritius will help China further integrate into the African economy and the African industry chain," Bai told the Global Times on Sunday, noting that China's manufacturing capabilities and raw materials could reach more African countries through Mauritius after the FTA.

However, the FTA is far from the only vehicle that China is using to expand trade and other types of cooperation with Africa. Chinese State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi is set to depart on Monday for his first official trip of the year to five African countries - Nigeria, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Botswana, Tanzania and Seychelles - in line with a tradition since 1991, the Chinese Foreign Ministry said.

The trip is aimed at strengthening communication and cooperation with African countries, enhanced collaboration in combating the COVID-19 pandemic and economic recovery, and advancing cooperation under the Belt and Road Initiative, the ministry said.

"China and Africa have always shared weal and woe. This friendship emerged still stronger from the test of COVID-19 in 2020," Wang said in an interview with the Xinhua News Agency and China Media Group, adding that China would work with Africa on three priority areas: vaccine cooperation and economic recovery, breaking new ground for cooperation, and delivering new benefits to the people.

As African exports to China dropped significantly in 2020 due to the pandemic, there is a great need for external investment in Africa to help cope with the fallout of the pandemic and build industrial capacities there, Chinese analysts said.

"Looking to the future, it is inevitable that China will increase its investment in Africa substantially. Of course, this also requires policy support, such as aid funding for Africa," Song Wei, an associate research fellow at the Chinese Academy of International Trade and Economic Cooperation, told the Global Times on Sunday.

Beyond boosting cooperation with Africa, the new FTA and new initiatives send a much clearer signal that China will continue to pursue multilateral cooperation in face of rising unilateralism and protectionism, experts said.

"The signing of the agreement between China and Mauritius is also a signal, which means that China will unswervingly support the globalization strategy and oppose unilateralism," Song said.

Apart from the China-Mauritius FTA, China started to implement upgraded FTAs with several other countries on New Year's Day, including New Zealand, Peru, Switzerland, Australia and South Korea. 

China and other Asia-Pacific economies signed the world's biggest trade pact last year, and China and the EU completed negotiations for a bilateral investment treaty.