Picture: Thomas Mukoya/Reuters (File) – An aerial view shows containers at the Nairobi Terminus operating the Standard Gauge Railway (SGR) line constructed by the China Road and Bridge Corporation (CRBC) and financed by Chinese government, on the outskirts of Nairobi, Kenya January 29, 2022.
By David Monyae
The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), initially proclaimed as the One Belt One Road initiative was first mooted by President Xi Jinping in Kazakhstan in 2013. The initiative has two strands, the Silk Road Economic Belt and the Maritime Silk Road.
The Economic Belt is land-based and connects China, Central Asia and Europe. The Maritime Silk Road is sea-based, straddling the South China Sea, Africa and China. While appreciated in the developing world, especially among countries that have woeful or no infrastructure, the BRI has been the focus of criticism by China’s detractors.
Blind criticism robs critics of seeing ways through which the BRI can complement non-Chinese projects such as the Build Back Better initiative and projects led by the G-7.
The BRI is modelled on the fabled Silk Road, which jutted from East Asia towards Europe. A project of colossal proportions, spanning three continents and 60 percent of the global population, the BRI will have a longer reach than its Silk Road archetype.
Beyond Asia and Europe, the BRI will also incorporate Africa, a region that is bereft of infrastructure but is of vast importance to China’s growth and ambitions. The BRI is indubitably one of the boldest and most ambitious infrastructure undertakings in history.
Professor Lauren Johnston, who has studied the BRI from its inception, has outlined the tangible and intangible benefits that come with this project.
The project has patent tangible benefits. In a highly globalised world, the BRI will enhance communication, bolster road connectivity, promote unimpeded trade, strengthen currency circulation and reinforce people-to-people interaction.
If these benefits sound familiar, it is because they should be ineluctable results of globalisation, and are also in tandem with the African Union’s Agenda 2063. Intangible benefits that could result from the BRI include the establishment of amicable relations among nations, the pursuit of win-win or mutually beneficial co-operation, and general inclusiveness among people. Again, these are benefits that rhyme with Agenda 2063 and the African Continental Free Trade Area.
Predictably, the BRI’s very existence, its inclusion of Africa and its perceived interests, both tangible and intangible, have aroused hostile speculation and rivalry from China’s detractors. Reasons are legion for this antipathy.
The BRI has significant potential for Africa’s quest to surmount the continent’s dearth of infrastructure. There is also sentiment involved in Africa-China ties over the BRI, as both parties usually evoke Chinese voyages of the past, when the Silk Road was extant, that reached as far as Africa.
There is an argument that infrastructure is one of the most formidable challenges to economic growth in Africa. The BRI, therefore, offers Africa an opportunity.
While some African countries might express preferences for Western partnerships in infrastructure projects, the West has a history of reluctance dating back more than half a century ago when it baulked at the idea of helping Zambia and Tanzania to construct the Tanzania-Zambia Railway.
China accepted the task with alacrity and contributed to financing and personnel. This trend continues to this day; the African Development Bank has noted that Africa has an infrastructure funding gap of slightly more than $100 billion.
This has hampered intra-African trade, confining it to less than 20 percent annually. These are the handicaps that initiatives such as the BRI can rectify. To be fair, American or non-Chinese players could also recognise a niche in these shortcomings and add initiatives of their own, even to the extent of working with China.
Of Africa’s 54 countries, China has BRI arrangements with 39. Congo-Brazzaville, Djibouti, and Zambia are the only countries, out of the 39, for whom China is the principal creditor. Djibouti, where the People’s Liberation Army of China has a base, has often been put up as an example of China’s time-honoured expansionism that is now aided by China’s massive economy and initiatives such as the BRI.
It should also be noted that China has had to endure accusations of contractual opacity, inferior quality for its infrastructure programmes, and adherence to environmental standards. These are crucial for sustainable development. In the same breath, China’s involvement in many African countries has been the only reliable option for overcoming chronic infrastructure shortages.
The Standard Gauge Railway in Kenya and the 2,600 MW hydropower scheme in Nigeria answer those countries’ problems with transport and power generation in general, as does the multibillion-dollar commitment to telecommunications equipment in Ethiopia, Sudan and Ghana.
The United States (US) is the leading voice on anti-China initiatives such as the BRI. Debt-trap diplomacy had become the main issue of speculation about China’s activities in the developing world.
The pith of the issue is that China dispenses debt to receiving countries under murky terms that might eventually lead to default and hence leave receiving countries with no option but to acquiesce in China’s economic, political and military pursuits. Hambantota Bay in Sri Lanka, where China excused Sri Lanka’s $8 billion debt in exchange for a 99-year lease, has become the poster child for those supporting the debt-trap narrative.
The US is so blinded by this that it does not seem to concede potential benefits for the BRI to the developing world, and indeed to the United States itself. The US has a long-practised inclination towards globalisation, and connectivity is one of the most essential components of globalisation.
For this reason, America has to study initiatives such as the BRI that foster global connectivity, and only after such close study can it give informed appraisals rather than precipitate criticisms. In any case, America has to support initiatives that bring world players closer, even if China is the genesis or leader of such initiatives.
While the Manichaean mould of Cold-War era politics made it difficult to accommodate the possibility of neutrality in international interests, the United States needs to divine which of China’s activities are neutral, which ones are complementary and which ones are expressly aimed at it.
The United States has opportunities to work with China while addressing what it considers its troubling practices. Close study of the BRI could actually open America up to aspects of it that intersect with China. Working in such close tandem, America can then lead, by example, in introducing transparency, environmental adherence and many other aspects that it finds deficient in other infrastructure funders.
Antipathy to China cuts across the now highly visible political fissures and divides into the United States. It was stunning in 2017, when democrats, led by Chuck Schumer pushed Donald Trump, a republican president to “go after” China.
America was decrying China’s alleged intellectual property theft, devaluing of the yuan and anticompetitive state subsidies. American machinations have had a telling impact on how China is perceived, as the US invariably seeks consonance and alignment in policies and behaviours towards China.
The uncritical criticism and hostility toward China deprive the US of identifying the upside of the BRI, and hence of exploring opportunities of working in concert with China to remedy Africa’s lack of adequate infrastructure.
Joe Biden’s Build Back Better framework contains aspects that might work well with the spirit of the BRI. The limitation that Build Back has is that it is mostly tailored to America, with a focus on swelling the rungs of the middle class. BRI is more globally-oriented.
However, if applied to America’s global footprint Build Back can be globally beneficial. It emphasises a bottom-up approach to economic progress. So does the BRI emphasise the importance of transport in ferrying African goods to African and international markets? Job creation and retention are self-evident benefits that both Build Back and the BRI can spur.
This is more crucial as the world is opening up after almost three years of the assault wrought by Covid-19. While the pandemic was devastating the world over, its most serious damage is concentrated in Africa, a host to most of the world’s poor, fragile and conflict-prone countries.
Build Back’s emphasis on climate change could also be a positive influence on the BRI. So can the European Union’s Global Getway strategy, which seeks “to boost smart, clean and secure links in digital, energy and transport and strengthen health, education and research systems across the world”.
On paper, these are initiatives that should automatically work in a complementary fashion. Unfortunately, age-old stereotypes and reluctance to see new players, especially the previously impoverished ones, come into global prominence infect possibilities for synergy.
The European Union is even closer to the network of the BRI geographically and some of its members, including Italy, have signed memoranda with China. It is also noteworthy that, as part of the G-7, Italy provides an illustration of how global players, without succumbing to time-honoured animosities, can straddle initiatives from disparate parts of the world.
Bickering among major players, over initiatives such as the BRI, Build Back Better and Global Getway, is likely to relegate into insignificance the plight of the developing world and Africa specifically. This was the case during the Cold War, and Africa suffered for it.
China, as a player that understands Africa’s situation, offers an instructive lesson for Africa, and hence can imbue prospective partners such as America and Europe with the authority of experience in trying to overcome Africa’s infrastructure challenges.
For as long as non-Chinese players will remain incorrigibly hostile to the BRI, they will not only succeed in presenting themselves as bitter and cynical, they are not likely to win African surrogates.
Africa is less interested in politics, and more interested in what the continent needs to get it over the hurdles to economic progress. On these grounds, the BRI is crucial.
David Monyae is Associate Professor and Director of the Centre for Africa-China Studies at the University of Johannesburg.