Xi Jinping has started his third term as general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party with a flurry of diplomatic activity at home. Many headlines noted that Tanzania’s President Samia Suluhu Hassan, who was in Beijing from November 2 to 4, was the first head of state to visit China after the quinquennial Party Congress. (The two visitors who preceded her were Vietnam’s Communist Party chief and Pakistan’s head of government.) It was also Hassan’s first state visit outside of Africa, signaling China’s importance in Tanzania’s foreign policy.
During Hassan’s state visit, China and Tanzania reiterated their commitment to the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), a Chinese foreign and economic policy that several observers previously suggested was “drying up.” While they also mentioned China’s new Global Development Initiative (GDI), the visit suggests the “dying BRI” narrative is questionable. Also, Tanzania has now become the fourth African country (after Alegria, Mozambique, and South Africa) to sign a “comprehensive strategic partnership” with China, backed by several substantive new deals. Put differently, in a time of considerable global uncertainty, African countries are still engaging with China, as well as other partners.
Based on our database, since 2009 there have been 251 visits by African leaders to China (including Hassan’s) and 99 visits by Chinese leaders to African countries. Visits from African leaders to China in particular are positively correlated with increased investment from China, and this shows in the data for Tanzania.
Tanzania accounts for 10 of the visits to China in our dataset and eight of the visits in the opposite direction, placing second after South Africa. Tanzania has been frequently referred to as one of the closest “African brothers” for China since its first-generation leaders formed friendship pacts in the post-colonial age in the 1960s. The most notable development aid project was the TAZARA Railway, financed through interest-free loans by China. After the 1990s, Chinese development assistance has gradually evolved from direct aid flows to both concessional and commercial loans in key sectors, including infrastructure, and investment has started to rise, including in agriculture and manufacturing.
Although the late former President John Magufuli publicly called the $10 billion Bagamoyo port project deal “exploitative” in 2019, economic ties with China continued. In 2021, FDI from China to Tanzania was around $54 million, bringing China’s stock of FDI in the country close to that of the United States – both at around $1.4-1.5 billion.
Hassan’s visit confirmed continuity in the Chinese and African policies that driven these developments and thus countered narratives about the decline of the BRI or other related initiatives like the Forum on China Africa Cooperation (FOCAC).
But this visit was not just symbolic. Hassan returned home with several new deals finalized or newly placed on the table, important for Tanzania as well as China.
For China, Tanzania is a key potential market itself and a gateway to intra-Africa trade, especially under the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA), operational since January 2021. Yet Tanzania has expressed concerns about the balance of trade. In 2020, in an interview with Development Reimagined, Tanzanian Ambassador to China Mbelwa Kairuki noted, “For every dollar of goods we export to China, we usually import 10 dollars of goods from China.” This is not unusual for African countries; hence trade balancing has been on the collective African agenda when it comes to FOCAC since 2015.
During her visit, Hassan took steps to reduce this imbalance, agreeing on new protocols to enable exports of avocados and fish to China. Tanzania also gained duty-free access to the Chinese market for another 1 percent of tariff lines – which only seven other African countries (Togo, Eritrea, Rwanda, Mozambique, Sudan, Chad, and Central African Republic) currently benefit from. One percent might seem small, but the markets opened include certain oil, wine, chemical, and wood products as well as animal leather, shoes, engines, and vehicles. Thus the duty-free access could enable more value-added and finished goods from Tanzania to enter the Chinese market.
The opportunities for market access to China and the wider African market can be used to attract more industry to move up value chains. As part of its Development Vision 2025, Tanzania aims to have the manufacturing sector contributing to at least 40 percent of GDP. Improving regional infrastructure in the subregion will be crucial to this shift, as cutting logistics costs will make manufacturing ventures more profitable.
There are positive signs of this holistic, strategic thinking.
Prior to her trip, Hassan inspected PowerChina’s Kibondo road projects – which will connect Tanzania with Rwanda and Burundi – and laid a foundation stone for the construction of the Msalato International Airport in Dodoma. During her visit, Hassan and Xi reiterated a new commitment to “upgrade and transform” the TAZARA railway. Projects on digital connectivity may also be announced soon, given that only an estimated 50 percent of the Tanzanian population has internet access (a rate that is much worse in rural areas) and Tanzania is aiming to reach 80 percent by 2025.
Also, a plan for the Sino-Tan Kibaha Industrial Park in the Coast Region was signed in August 2022 with the aim of becoming the largest manufacturing hub in Southern Africa, generating more than 100,000 jobs. With the facilities under construction, the next step is planning for the relocation of production capacities from Chinese factories in key sectors.
For Tanzanian businesspeople and citizens, the visit suggests both continuity and a degree of scale up of the Chinese relationship. The fact that the official statement also mentioned the resumption of tourism flows and Tanzanian students and professionals entering China also suggests movement in China’s zero-COVID policy, though it may be slow.
It is likely that other African leaders, should they visit, can expect similar outcomes, meaning there’s no time like the present to prepare key positions and asks.
For those outside Africa and China, the fact that Hassan and Xi chose each other for important “firsts” is meaningful. African governments and their policies matter to China and vice versa, whatever opportunities or challenges this poses on both sides.