President Xi Jinping of China, traveling to Africa for the first time in five years, pledged greater cooperation with South Africa to enhance the voice of poor nations. He commended developing countries for “shaking off the yoke of colonialism.” And on Wednesday, he’s expected to hold talks with the leaders of the BRICS, a club of emerging nations, as he pushes for its expansion to serve as a counterweight to Western dominance.
On his four-day visit to South Africa this week, Mr. Xi has sought to cast himself as a leader of the developing world. Mr. Xi kicked off his trip with a state visit and was received with an honor guard, a 21-gun salute and roads lined with cheering crowds waving Chinese flags.
For China, the reception in Pretoria reinforced the message it hopes to send to audiences both at home and abroad that Beijing’s offer of an alternative to the U.S.-led global order has ample purchase outside the exclusive club of the developed countries. That has grown increasingly important to China. Its support for Russia and its aggressive posture on issues like the status of Taiwan, the self-governed island Beijing claims as its territory, has alienated it from countries in North America, Europe and Asia.
In China’s escalating rivalry with the United States, Africa is an emerging battleground for global influence. Beijing has invested billions in countries that have long been ignored by the West. The result of that outreach has been diplomatic support in international organizations like the United Nations and access to critical minerals needed to power growing industries, like electric vehicles.
“For Xi, the goal is to try to discredit the West and show that there is an alternative out there,” said Eric Olander, the chief editor of The China-Global South Project website. “He’s trying to tap into this incredible well of grievance and frustration among many Global South countries over what they perceive as this massive duplicity and hypocrisy on the part of rich countries.”
That frustration has been driven in recent years by unfulfilled promises by developed countries to deliver Covid-19 vaccines to poorer countries and the feeling that not enough is being done about soaring food and energy prices.
“The poor and marginalized are facing the greatest threat, in that their plight is forgotten while the so-called great powers fight,” South Africa’s foreign minister, Naledi Pandor, said in a speech in June.
In a meeting with President Cyril Ramaphosa of South Africa on Tuesday, Mr. Xi said it was “urgent” for China to strengthen unity and cooperation with countries in Africa because of “changes and chaos” in the world — imagery Mr. Xi has used to describe intensifying competition from Washington.
Mr. Xi leaned on his long relationship with South Africa’s leadership, recalling his first visit to the country 20 years, as a provincial governor. In this, his fourth visit to South Africa, Mr. Xi reiterated China and South Africa’s “comradely” relationship. His remarks sought to draw parallels between the two countries’ political and economic fates, saying that as his government is “leading the Chinese people to advance the rejuvenation of the Chinese nation,” South Africa is forging ahead with an independent development plan that “suits its national ambitions.”
But the main highlight of his trip has been the summit in Johannesburg of the BRICS group of nations — named for its members, Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa — as Beijing seeks to increase its sway. While not mentioning it by name, the Chinese leader took aim at the United States, painting it as a bully and a threat to peace in a speech on Tuesday that was read by China’s commerce minister, Wang Wentao, for undisclosed reasons.
He warned of bloc confrontation and called on nations not to “sleepwalk into the abyss of a new Cold War.”
“Should we embrace prosperity, openness and inclusiveness, or allow hegemonic and bullying acts to throw us into depression?” the speech read.
By contrast, Mr. Xi portrayed China as a force for stability and pointed to vague, loftily-worded initiatives around development and security that analysts say are aimed at weakening the spread of Western liberal values and the influence of forums like the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
The BRICS summit provides a rare multilateral forum for Mr. Xi to air such rhetorical flourishes. Attendees come from not just the five members of the group, but many other countries. They include nations aligned with China, such as Iran, and others that profess nonalignment and are looking to hedge between Beijing and Washington, such as Indonesia and Saudi Arabia.
One major measure of success for Mr. Xi’s visit will be if the grouping adds more members. China is in favor of expansion to increase the group’s clout, and by extension, its own global standing. India and Brazil, on the other hand, are more reluctant to add members that might tilt the group more steadily toward China and make BRICS anti-Western.
South Africa has tried to stake the middle ground but has been pulled closer by China and Russia. Ahead of his visit, Mr. Xi published a letter in South African news media that said that relations between Beijing and Pretoria had entered a “golden age” and that deeper relations between China and Africa would provide “new drivers of global development and more stability in the world.”
South Africa, chafing against pressure from the West, is also keen to position itself as a voice for emerging nations, especially those in Africa.
“We are grateful for the support and friendship that China has provided as we have worked to rebuild and transform our country after the devastation of apartheid,” Mr. Ramaphosa told Mr. Xi as he greeted him on Tuesday.
South Africa is China’s largest trading partner in Africa, and it serves as a key transit point for commodities exported from other countries on the continent to China.
Beijing also maintains deep ties with Mr. Ramaphosa’s African National Congress, even helping to establish an academy for young leaders. China has committed to helping South Africa repair its dilapidated national electricity grid and has had state energy companies visit South Africa during Mr. Xi’s state visit.
Mr. Xi has received fawning coverage in Chinese state media over the visit. But the outreach to Africa comes as China is grappling with a housing crisis and slowing economic growth, problems that could diminish how much Beijing can spend on foreign aid and development.
“China as a whole is running out of money, particularly foreign exchange,” said Willy Lam, an analyst of Chinese politics who is a senior fellow at Jamestown Foundation, a research institute in Washington. “This has been a big impediment to Beijing’s plans to extend its influence in the developing world.”
Olivia Wang contributed reporting.