Power plays: Why are a wave of African leaders visiting China, despite geopolitics?

Following China’s lifting of its zero-Covid policy in January 2023, there has been a flurry of African leadership visits to China. Within eight months, China has already received seven African Presidents from Tanzania, Algeria, Eritrea, Mauritania, Burundi, Benin and Zambia and five foreign ministers from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Equatorial Guinea, Ethiopia, Sierra Leone and Zimbabwe.

It is still only September, and this is already an above average number of visits (from 2009 to 2018 visits averaged seven per year). As visits inevitably decreased during the Covid-19 pandemic to just four visits in 2022 and zero visits in 2021, this suggests that African leaders are trying to catch up since China opened its borders in January 2023 and also indicates that claims of Chinese ‘debt traps’ and US-China geopolitical rivalry have far from hindered the China-Africa relationship from advancing.

But why exactly are African leaders so keen to visit China since its borders opened?

Well, back in 2021, our firm found that African leadership visits to China resulted in increased Chinese investment and trade, and new deals and cooperation plans or the revision of existing ones. Ultimately, we found strong evidence that these visits were helping African leaders to achieve their development goals. This explains why African leaderships are high – there were 222 visits between 2009 to 2018.

Importantly, Chinese leaders also make African countries a priority. During the same period, Chinese leaders visited 40 African countries 82 times. It is also significant that despite Covid-19, Chinese leaders still visited Africa every single year from 2019 to 2023 totalling 29 visits and maintained their usual diplomatic engagements with Africa including the annual tradition of China’s foreign ministry starting his global tour in Africa, although President Xi himself only attended FOCAC 2021 virtually.

Interestingly, as is also in line with our previous research, visits are still not occurring on a reciprocal basis meaning that a visit or even several visits from top Chinese leaders to an African country did not mean that the country would necessarily return the visit, and vice versa.  This suggests that African leaders are visiting China due to their own priorities and not because of China’s.

For example, China visited Egypt a total of three times between 2019 to 2023 without Egypt reciprocating making Egypt the most frequently visited African nation by Chinese leaders. On the other hand, Sierra Leone and Zambia initiated two visits to China without receiving a visit in return.

So, if there is still little alignment why are African countries engaging China and how does this differ from 2009 to 2018? We did notice some subtle changes.

Firstly, trade deals were an extremely common feature emerging from the visits between 2019 and 2023 with at least 13 SPS agreements allowing various African agricultural products to be exported to China emerging directly from leadership visits or shortly after a visit had occurred. Seven of these agreements derived from a Chinese leadership visit to the beneficial African country and six emerged from an African leadership to China. This indicates that visits initiated from both sides holds equal weight in terms of its value and potential impact.

We also noticed that leadership visits can result in significant shifts in African exports to China without specific trade deals being announced. For example, Sierra Leone’s two visits to China in 2019 and 2023 took place during Australia and China’s ongoing trade war, which led to China announcing its plan to reduce its reliance on Australia’s iron ore exports, Sierra Leone’s key export to China. The 2019 visit resulted in a Joint Economic and technical Cooperation agreement and thereafter a noticeable increase in Sierra Leone’s exports to China rising from US $179 million in 2019 to US $762 million in 2022. Clearly, Sierra Leone has benefitted from the new agreement.

Secondly, statements regarding African countries strengthening their commitment to the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) were a feature of all African presidential visit statements which refutes the idea that the BRI is slowing down as some commentators have claimed.

Thirdly, we also noticed African leadership visits to China were becoming more strategic and resulting in FDI and deals to help fulfil long-term economic growth plans. Take Zambian President Hichilema’s recent trip to China in September 2023 that resulted in an FDI investment of US$290 million for a lithium batteries manufacturing plant in a bid to start processing Zambia’s abundant copper resources.

This is certainly great progress, but what more can be done?

Crucially, African leadership visits are still focused on bilateral agendas and a continent or regional strategy and coordination with neighbouring countries is still noticeably absent – the exceptions being Tanzania and Zambia’s joint plans to upgrade the Tazara Railway and reports about Kenya-Uganda-Rwanda coordination on an SGR extension although the latter is still unclear. Regional coordination will even become even more important with the implementation of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA).

Furthermore, although verbal and written agreements to cooperate on the BRI were common, no specific projects financed by Chinese banks were mentioned, which contrasts with recent Chinese visits to Asia. This has led to speculation that China is “pulling back” on providing financing for African infrastructure projects. However, our analysis suggests this more a pause due to Covid-19 induced slowdowns rather than a pullback. Nevertheless, a renewed push from African leaders to secure infrastructure financing and BRI projects is crucial given the infrastructure financing needs of African countries to meet their SDGs.

With Africa facing a series of global shocks – the COVID-19 pandemic, the war in Ukraine and resulting food and energy crises, surging inflation, debt tightening, as well as the climate emergency – visits to China, a key partner for 53 African nations, will continue to grow in importance, as African countries attempt to keep their development plans on track. The continued purposefulness of these leadership visits, and the frequent outcomes, is certainly a step in the right direction and especially because it is not always guaranteed that this happens when African leaders visit other countries.

But as we have shown, more can be done. Seeing more deals like Zambia’s, to enhance value-added sectors to process natural resources will ensure these visits become even more impactful. Even better, but certainly more challenging, would be to see African countries or even regions planning these trips together to create both FDI and concessional finance for new infrastructure deals that leverage one another’s resources or manufacturing capacities – this will complement the implementation of the African Continental Free Trade Area and Africa’s ambition to become the next manufacturing hub of the world.

With the third BRI forum and the next Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) expected to be held in China in late 2024, now is the time to act and begin creating even more intentional strategies to ensure African leaders get the most from their relationship with China.

Rosie Wigmore is the Project Manager of the Global Trade team at Development Reimagined. She focuses on researching developments in the Africa-China trade relationship and supporting high-end African brands with entering the Chinese market.

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Trevor Lwere

Research and Coordination Analyst

Trevor Lwere is a Research and Coordination analyst at Development Reimagined with a background in Economics and Global Affairs. His interests include geopolitics, geoeconomics and economic development. He holds a Masters’ degree in Global Affairs fro Tsinghua University and a BA Economics from the University of Notre Dame.

Yujie Shi

 Policy and Research Analyst

Yuejie Shi is a Research and Data Analyst at Development Reimagined with a special focus on Global Trade and China-Africa Trade.

Sena Voncujovi

Research Analyst

Sena Voncujovi is a research and policy analyst at Development Reimagined. Voncujovi specializes in global health issues, Japan-Africa relations, and China-Africa relations. He served as the Editor-in-chief of Peking University’s Africa Think Tank (PATT) during his master’s in International Relations & Politics as a Yenching Scholar. Voncujovi previously advised the Ghanaian government for the 2019 TICAD 7 Conference held in Yokohama. He is the co-founder of Jaspora, Tokyo’s largest community of African diasporan diplomats, changemakers, professionals, students, and business people.

Rugare Mukanganga


Rugare is an economist at Development Reimagined, providing economic and data analysis support across projects.

Yixin Yu

Research Analyst

Yixin is a Junior Research Analyst and her focus areas is on public-private partnership and entrepreneurship. She has over three years of working experience in both private and public sectors in Ethiopia. She was the China Liaison Officer for project ‘Partnership for Investment and Growth in Africa’ at International Trade Centre, where she accumulated rich experience in investment and trade promotion.

Ivory Kairo

Communications Support

Ivory is a Kenyan lawyer with experience in policy research and analysis. She also supports the communications team through liaising with African brands, creating graphic content and other external outputs at AR. Ivory speaks English, Swahili and French

Huiyi Chen

Partnership Development

Huiyi Chen is a Research and Coordination Analyst on China-Africa cooperation and leading the engagement with Chinese stakeholders at Development Reimagined.

Jinyu Chen

Research Analyst | Paris, France

Jinyu is a dual-degree Master’s student at Sciences Po & Peking University.  At Africa Reimagined, Jinyu produces research to foster better mutual understanding between African clients and Chinese consumers. 


Jade Scarfe

Communications Support
Jade is a research analyst and communication support at Africa Reimagined. She supports with liaising with African brands, creating content and gathering China market research.

Yike Fu

China-Africa Policy Analyst

Yike Fu is a Policy Analyst and has been responsible for leading numerous areas of work, including on debt analysis in Africa and beyond, and China-Africa trade and investment logistics and analysis. She is the co-author of “African Debt Guide”, in which she challenged the narrative that Africa is in the midst of a new debt crisis by analysing data back to the 1970s and adopting new metrics to present the real story behind the data. She also developed a benchmark to compare the financial distribution of development partners such as the UK, US, Japan, France and China in Africa. Prior to her role at DR she worked at the International Finance Corporation and African Union Representational Mission to the US. She holds a Masters in International Affairs from George Washington University.

Rosie Wigmore

Project Manager | Beijing, PRC

Rosie is the Project Manager of Africa Reimagined (AR) at Development Reimagined (DR) where she supports high-end African brands with entering the Chinese market by operating services such as trademark protection, Chinese market research, Chinese partnership building, and Africa to China logistical support and import/export services. Rosie has worked with DR for over two years now with proven success in helping high-end African brands navigate the Chinese market. She is extremely passionate about her work because more African brands selling in the Chinese marketplace means African countries can export MORE value-added goods, create MORE jobs and foster MORE innovation in African countries.

Leah Lynch

Deputy Director | Beijing, PRC

Leah Lynch is Deputy Director of Development Reimagined (DR), and head of the China office. Leah has over 10 years of experience in development and has lived in China for over 8 years. Leah has also travelled extensively around Asia and Africa for research. Leah supports the strategic direction of the team across China, with a mission to deliver high quality research on sustainable development and poverty reduction. Leah is also Chair of the Sustainability Forum at the British Chamber of Commerce in China, providing direction on sustainability initiatives for British and Chinese business. Leah has also consulted on various evaluations on UK aid (ICAI) and is a specialist on development cooperation from the UK and China. Leah has also consulted on various UN projects, including providing support to the UN China team during the COVID-19 Pandemic. Prior to DR, Leah was at the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) China, supporting the UN’s portfolio on communication strategies, China’s South- South Cooperation and the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Before UNDP, Leah lived and worked in Kenya developing sustainable water policies for the Kenyan government.

Hannah Ryder

Founder and CEO 

Hannah Ryder is the Founder & CEO of Development Reimagined. A former diplomat and economist with 20 years of experience, named one of 100 most influential Africans in 2021, she is also Senior Associate for the Africa Program of the Center for Strategic International Studies (CSIS), sits on the Board of the Environmental Defence Fund, and is a member of UAE’s International Advisory Council on the New Economy. Prior to her role at DR, Ms Ryder led the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP)’s work with China to help it scale up and improve its cooperation with other developing countries, including in Africa. She has also played various advisory roles for the UN and OECD and co-authored the seminal Stern Review of the Economics of Climate Change in 2006.


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