China's latest trade partner in Africa could help it export to the US

  • Chinese President Xi Jinping has just concluded a visit to the west African country of Senegal, the first stop of his four-leg tour of the African continent.
  • Senegal's coastal location could enable China to more easily access U.S. markets.
  • Senegal is the first West African country to sign up to China's Belt and Road Initiative, a multi-billion dollar plan to resurrect ancient trading routes centered on China.
People wave Chinese and Senegalese flags upon the arrival of Chinese President Xi Jinping on July 21, 2018, in Dakar, Senegal.
Seyllou | AFP | Getty Images
People wave Chinese and Senegalese flags upon the arrival of Chinese President Xi Jinping on July 21, 2018, in Dakar, Senegal.

Chinese President Xi Jinping visited the West African country of Senegal over the weekend, building trade ties which could bear fruit in terms of China’s access to U.S. markets.

Xi met with his Senegalese counterpart Macky Sall, as well as Senegalese Prime Minister Mohammed Dionne, as part of a two-day visit which began on Saturday.

Following bilateral talks, Senegal signed up to be the first West African nation committed to China’s Belt and Road Initiative, a multi-billion dollar scheme to resurrect ancient trading routes centered on China.

Senegal, with a population of just 16 million, might seem like a curious stop for Xi given that Nigeria, Africa’s largest economy, is also in the West Africa region.

But according to Ibrahima Diong, who has served as Senegal’s minister of Chinese affairs, the country’s location is particularly attractive.

“For any Chinese companies that would like to export to the U.S., you cannot get better than Senegal,” he told CNBC via telephone, highlighting its position on the west coast of the African continent.

China is Senegal’s second largest trading partner after its former colonial power France.

Xi’s visit to Senegal was the first stop of a broader tour of the African continent. He landed in Rwanda on Monday and will then attend a BRICS summit in South Africa, before stopping in Mauritius. The Chinese president visited the United Arab Emirates earlier last week.

Xi's Africa visit is his fourth to the continent since he took office in 2013, and his first overseas trip since beginning his second term as Chinese president in March of this year.

Chinese President Xi Jinping (R) and Senegalese President Macky Sall arrive for the inauguration ceremony of a wrestling arena built by a Chinese company in Dakar, Senegal, on July 22, 2018.
Seyllou | AFP | Getty Images
Chinese President Xi Jinping (R) and Senegalese President Macky Sall arrive for the inauguration ceremony of a wrestling arena built by a Chinese company in Dakar, Senegal, on July 22, 2018.

While Senegal is the first West African country to partner with China as part of its Belt and Road Initiative, Chinese-built infrastructure projects are mushrooming in the region. Last week a railway network was opened in Nigeria’s capital Abuja, helping to address the country’s need for infrastructure.

But, China has been accused of lending to its Belt and Road partner countries under conditions that they will not be able to fulfill.

Diong pointed out that Senegal is a favorable place for China to do business given its stable democracy. He added that Senegal is already an established exporter of its oil and gas reserves, enabling China to carve out a different kind of relationship. “While China needs some commodities, (it doesn’t) want a relationship that’s just commodity driven,” he said.

Partnership with Senegal enables China to “make a dent in the francophone world,” added Diong. He said that “Africans are being extremely pragmatic” in their business decisions, and are no longer constrained by colonial ties.

That perspective was echoed in an editorial published in several South African newspapers over the weekend, in which Xi wrote that South Africa and China had “forged a deep friendship during our common struggle against imperialism, colonialism and racism.”

It detailed that "China’s direct investment in South Africa has grown by more than 80 times and (now) exceeded $10.2 billion in cumulative terms."

For Diong, China's inroads in Africa are symptomatic of a shifting geopolitical order, particularly as global media attention is largely focused on the U.S.' relationship with Russia.

“Africans love the Chinese story,” Doing said. “Beyond just money, China is seen by many Africans as a model to aspire towards,” he added.