President Xi Jinping has said China would offer another one billion doses of COVID-19 vaccines to African countries and would encourage Chinese companies to invest no less than $10bn in Africa across the next three years.
The pledge of additional vaccine doses – on top of the nearly 200 million that China has already supplied to the continent – comes as concerns intensify about the spread of a new variant of the coronavirus, known as Omicron, which was first identified in southern Africa.
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The Chinese leader said that his country would donate 600 million doses directly. A further 400 million doses would come from other sources, such as investments in production sites.
Xi’s promise comes as part of forum between China and African states with an emphasis on trade and security, held in the city of Diamniadio near Senegal’s seaside capital, Dakar.
“We must continue to fight together against COVID,” Xi told the summit on Monday. “We must prioritise the protection of our people and close the vaccination gap”.
Vaccination rates in Africa are low compared with the rest of the world, with many states at the mercy of foreign donations due to the lack of local production facilities and prohibitive costs of mass purchases.
Beijing has also donated millions of doses of its home-produced Sinopharm vaccine to poor African countries since the start of the pandemic.
Critics charge that China’s largesse forms part of a diplomatic offensive, however.
Xi also said a China-Africa cross-border yuan centre would be set up to provide African financial institutions with a credit line of $10bn, without giving further details.
China’s total imports from Africa, one of its key sources of crude oil and mineral supply, will reach $300bn in the next three years, Xi said, adding that the two sides would cooperate in areas such as health, digital innovation, trade promotion and green development.
Beijing invests heavily in Africa, and is the continent’s largest trading partner with direct trade worth more than $200bn in 2019, according to the Chinese embassy in Dakar.
The forum in Senegal follows a visit this month from US Secretary of State Antony Blinken to Kenya, Nigeria and Senegal, against a backdrop of growing rivalry between Beijing and Washington.
Blinken discussed boosting local vaccine-production sites with leaders during the visit, and alluded to the sometimes fraught nature of the continent’s deep relationship with China.
Last month, US President Joe Biden also announced vaccine donations to Africa, pledging 17 million doses of the single-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine to the African Union.
At the forum, Senegalese economy minister Amadou Hott told attendees that a shift in the commercial relationship with China was needed – away from projects financed by African governments taking on large debts.
“We need more equity investment,” he said, pushing for Chinese entrepreneurs to invest in local companies.
Beijing has often faced accusations of “debt-trap diplomacy” due to the scale of its lending to developing countries in Africa and elsewhere, using its creditor status to extract diplomatic and commercial concessions.
Blinken, in his recent trip to Africa, made reference to the accusations without naming China explicitly, saying in an address in Nigeria that Africans have been “wary of the strings” that often come with foreign engagement”. China rejects the charges.