In 2013, President Xi Jinping of China announced the plan for an ambitious multi-billion dollar project that will serve as a transportation network to connect China to the rest of Asia, the Middle-East and Europe. This project which was termed the Belt and Road Initiative (or the BRI) is seen by analysts, policymakers, economists and politicians as possibly the most ambitious project of the century. The country has rallied around for funding and investments from key stakeholders in the financial landscape in Asia to ensure its success. In fact, the plan seems to have been accepted by several countries like Sri Lanka, Nepal and Djibouti who have already entered trade agreements with the Chinese government to ensure the successful implementation of the project. The governments of these countries entered into the agreement not because they are solely keen on seeing China have uninterrupted, easy access to the global market but because the agreement aids the infrastructural development of such countries.
The Silk Road Economic Belt and the Ocean-going Maritime Silk Road
The Silk Road Economic Belt and the Maritime Silk Road are the two major roadmaps that the Chinese government aims to use (or is already using in some countries) to link China to the rest of the world. But what are they? The Silk Road economic belt is a land based transit route that runs through six corridors and covers most of the nations in Asia and Europe. With this, Beijing hopes to boost physical infrastructure by constructing bridges, railways, hydroelectric dams, roads, pipelines, etc. The ocean-going maritime silk road seeks to diversify China’s supply lines along its eastern coastline by constructing shipping ports, industrial parks, hydrocarbon refineries, etc.
With the bigger picture of linking China to other parts of the world in mind, the project also serves China’s foreign and domestic objectives. First, because 90% of China's trade (import and export) goes through the seas that are beyond the control of Beijing, this project helps to mitigate the country’s dependency on the existing sea lanes. Also, the Belton road serves as a contingency plan that diversifies foreign trade routes between Chinese cities and global markets. The construction of infrastructures like roads, railways and ports along the route will allow Beijing to bypass choke points in the south China sea. Thus, in order to be able to ensure the success of this project, the Chinese government approaches every nation differently to suit the specific, political and cultural landscape of its foreign partners.
Africa’s Involvement and Potential Consequences
A quick glance through the maps depicting the Belton route shows that African countries do not lie in the path that China seeks to explore. While this is apparent, China has, however, been relentless in partnering with some East African countries to foster the project’s advancement. Thus, Djibouti, Nigeria, Kenya and Egypt are just some of the countries that have entered into trade agreements with China. With this, I think it is logical to argue that China’s One Belt One Road Initiative is another subtle instrument of neocolonialism which is different from the orthodox method of using military force and pressure to get what you want from another country. Neocolonialism is a comprehensive term that describes how former colonial territories continually remain under imperialist control through cultural, political and economic pressures. Although, China was not a “colonizer” in the early 1900s per se, its recent actions of luring African countries to its mission of creating an infrastructural heaven for us is no different from colonialism. Just that this time, another method is used. An American political scientist, Joseph Nye, defines this method as “soft power” — when one country gets other countries to want what it wants, using attraction to get the support needed rather than military force. China currently uses soft power as a means to influence Africa for its own benefit at the expense of the resources of African countries. One of my Kenyan friends shared her concerns about the growing Chinese presence in her country: “Over the past 5-years lots of Chinese companies have been built in Kenya and learning Mandarin increases your chances at getting a job. In the course of learning Mandarin, the smart ones receive ‘scholarships’ to study in China and they never return, resulting in a brain drain. They come, infiltrate the system and now the social mobility of most Kenyans is becoming dependent on how much Chinese culture and language you know.”
It is clear that a growing continent like Africa, economically needs all the support it can get, especially in nurturing technocrats and leaders that will emancipate the countries economically. However, it baffles me to see that potential future technocrats of key industries of African countries are being taken away by the likes of China in the name of “helping” the continent. What kind of help takes so much from you without thinking of your wellbeing? What kind of help subjects you to long term indebtedness? What is even worse is that many African leaders are blind to this reality, thus, agreeing to China’s contract?
China’s use of a hands-on approach is also detrimental to African countries. That is, Beijing sends its own workers, its own managers, its own raw materials, its own equipment and even soldiers (if necessary) to foreign countries to carry out projects. For China, they believe that this method assures a more efficient work schedule and minimizes the embezzlement of allocated funds. However, for us, it means that the working class populace cannot benefit from the investments being made by China in our countries, in terms of making ends meet. Thus, it adds nothing to the teeming labour market who are hungry for work. Generally, for the government, it boosts infrastructural facilities, but it profits the ordinary working class citizens nothing as there’s lack of jobs for locals. However, where there are jobs for locals, they are made to do menial jobs they are probably overqualified for as well as face heavy discrimination from their fellow chinese workers “in Africa”. An example is shown in this video explaining China’s influence in Kenya, and in the words of another Kenyan friend, “we now have to bring in expatriates from China to work on projects because apparently we don’t have people who are qualified enough for their projects.”
It should be clear that while many people might see nothing wrong in China lending a helping hand in building infrastructures for African countries, we should not forget that African countries have for far too long depended on aid from Western countries. This perpetuates the same narrative of the dependency of African countries on foreign investments to be able to get to the level of development desired. Is China’s “hand of support” any different? I think this same narrative is what has kept Africa at the bottom of the development ladder. We are not propelled to want to create infrastructures by ourselves, and promote locally made products but we would rather wait till the West extends its hand of help to us to achieve the development we seek to achieve. Until we rise above that notion of a continent that is always seeking aid in terms of capital, infrastructure or any other form from foreign countries and continents, Africa will never reach the development it seeks to achieve.
Another concern is how China is subtly enticing African countries into getting loans that they may not be able to repay back in decades of years to come. This is scary as this can greatly slow down the development of any country concerned. While my home country, Nigeria is clearly not in the path of China’s silk road, the Asian powerhouse has entered into contractual agreements with the Nigerian government to provide infrastructures for us beginning with a Light Rail Mass Transit Project in, Abuja, the country’s capital. The partnership has the potential to yield up to $5 billion USD of loan from China which can have serious future consequences on a Nation whose standard of living is low and poverty is predominant. For a country like Nigeria, it is only tenable that the government focuses on increasing the standard living of people and also providing jobs for them and not creating unnecessary infrastructures that doesn’t benefit the ordinary man/woman. China itself did not rise to become an economic powerhouse through huge loans from Western countries. The country went through stages of development and constant implementation of its economic agendas and policies to get to where they are today without loans from Western powerhouses. Thus, we need to think along the same vein if we are to achieve such level of development.
As a pan-african optimist, I see Africa as a continent that will soar considerably in the coming years partly because of the predictions that have been made by economic analysts in previous years. Because of Africa’s young population (and its predicted young population rise), several companies might look towards Africa for labour in the future. Africa has the potential to thrive economically in the future but his is dependent on good leadership in place. However, the growth and development of African countries can be hampered by China and its present loan contracts with several African countries. When Africa’s time comes to reach the level of development that has been predicted by theorists and economists for decades, the repayment of a huge loan to China can stand as a stumbling block for that growth to materialise.
Colonialism happened once, and this clearly altered the realities of the continent ever since then. One way or another, the countries are slowly getting back to their feet, however, another form of neo-colonialism by China can go a long way in perpetually crippling the development of African countries. While it can be argued that China’s infrastructural development of African countries through the provision of necessary amenities will go a long way in providing real time infrastructures for the countries of the continent, it must be noted that these infrastructures come at a cost which can have a long term influence on the overall landscape of the economy of African countries affected by the BRI.