By Narayani Basu*
On January 8, 2017, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi embarked on what has become something of a foreign policy tradition for China — kicking off the New Year with a state visit to Africa. Since 1991, five Chinese foreign ministers have visited Africa on their first foreign trips each year.
Over a course of five days this year, Wang Yi visited five African countries — Madagascar, Zambia, Tanzania, the Republic of Congo and Nigeria. China and Africa share bilateral ties dating back to the 1950s, based on a story of mutual struggle for independence against imperialism. Since then, of course, the relationship has bloomed, with China evolving into one of the largest contributors to aid — both monetary and infrastructural — in sub-Saharan Africa. But while the statistics stack up in China’s favour (as of 2013, about 70 per cent of Chinese aid funding was geared towards infrastructure development), there have been some bumps along the way.
Between 2013 and 2014, both China and Africa experienced a fair amount of bilateral discomfort. China may have built stadiums, airports, hospitals, highways and dams across the continent, but these projects left many African countries saddled with debts, environmental conflicts and labour strikes. Indeed, in an opinion piece published in the Financial Times in 2013, the Governor of Nigeria’s Central Bank, Lamido Sanusi, alleged that Chinese investment in sub-Saharan Africa smacked of ‘colonialism’, in size and style. To top it all, Beijing was further accused of holding back a growing African economy by focusing on the pursuit of raw materials, rather than on the creation of local markets and jobs.
China, too, faced several disconcerting moments in its attempts to shore up influence in Africa. In 2014, South African President Jacob Zuma cautioned that Africa’s somewhat lopsided trade ties with China were turning out to be “unsuitable in the long term”. In Zambia, in 2015, the government had to take control of a Chinese copper mine after numerous complaints of labour abuse. That same year, Botswana’s President Ian Khama called for a reduction in new contracts to Chinese companies, citing poor construction and delays.
Small wonder, then, that Beijing has seen the need to severely reboot its foreign policy towards sub-Saharan Africa. During high-profile tours to the continent between 2014 and 2015, Chinese President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang laid the foundations for a more multilaterally focused agenda, assuring African leaders that, in addition to infrastructural aid, China’s policy in Africa would now encompass industrial cooperation, environmental protection, and the reduction of poverty — all areas which African leaders claimed had been hitherto neglected by Beijing.
The new policy was further fleshed out by Xi at the second summit of the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC), held in Johannesburg in December 2015, when he announced a $60 billion aid package covering industrialisation, agricultural modernisation, infrastructure, financial services, green development, trade and investment facilitation, poverty reduction and public welfare, public health, people-to-people exchanges, and peace and security.
On this current trip, then, Wang Yi will be looking to capitalise on the successes related to that summit, many of which were seen throughout 2016, including the opening of the Addis Ababa-Djibouti railway and progress on the Mombasa-Nairobi line, as well as the development of industrial parks and special economic zones.
In particular, China is pushing for African countries to board the One Belt, One Road (OBOR) bandwagon. The OBOR initiative was first proposed by China in 2013, with the aim of constructing a trade and infrastructure network, connecting Asia with Europe and Africa, in the footsteps of the ancient Silk Road trade routes. Formally, OBOR emphasises five areas of cooperation: 1) coordinating development policies; 2) forging networks of infrastructure and facilities; 3) strengthening investment and trade flows; 4) enhancing financial cooperation and 5) deepening social and cultural exchanges.
The choice of Africa harks back to China’s 14th century maritime fleets, which reached Africa’s eastern coasts, specifically modern-day Kenya. Indeed, while Kenya is the hub of the African OBOR, other projects will be specifically undertaken in Bizerte, Tunisia; Dakar, Senegal; Dar es Salaam, Tanzania; Djibouti, Djibouti; Libreville, Gabon; Maputo, Mozambique; and Tema, Ghana.
One example from this extensive network is the port of Bagamoyo, in Tanzania. Construction on the development of the port, financed by China and Oman, began in 2016. Once complete, the port is expected to become the biggest port in Africa, handling 20 times more cargo than the port at Dar es Salaam. With links to the central corridor railway and the TAZARA railway, as well as a parallel highway linking the port to the Uhuru-Zambia Highway, the plan is to construct Bagamoyo as a strategic pillar of the African OBOR and Maritime Silk Route, connecting the port with other East African countries, including Mozambique, Malawi, Zambia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Burundi, Rwanda, Uganda, Kenya, South Sudan, Comoros, Madagascar, and Seychelles.
This is a welcome step in African eyes. The rationale here is as simple as it always was — a continent sorely lacking in aid and resource infrastructure will always appreciate the interests of a rising superpower, especially when those interests come with large sums of money, and very few strings attached. This, despite the fact that some of the world’s newest economic hotspots are located across sub-Saharan Africa, and that East African economies have stabilised due to their proximity to critical Sea Lanes of Communication (SLOCs) in the Indian Ocean.
For China, too, the participation of countries like Madagascar in the ambitious OBOR initiative will be vital. As Africa’s largest island, and a country which has had direct links with the ancient Maritime Silk Route, it is a natural extension of the 21st century Silk Road that China has in mind. Indeed, Malagasy President Hery Rajaonarimampianina is touting his country as the gateway through which the modern Silk Road can enter Africa. Tanzania, whose leader Wang met on January 9, has also stated its intentions towards becoming a bridgehead of the OBOR initiative’s access to Africa.
Wang’s visit to Africa ended on January 12, but the outcomes of the visit — even if they are, for the moment, renewed promises and accelerated infrastructure construction — are promising not just for the continued progress of the African OBOR, but also for the deepening of Sino-African ties.
China’s plan for strengthening OBOR in Africa comes not only in a post-Brexit world, but in the face of a new administration in the United States, led by Donald Trump, which has barely mentioned any foreign policy towards Africa. There is no doubt that a rich geopolitical opportunity is up for grabs, as far as both Beijing and sub-Saharan Africa are concerned.
*Narayani Basu is a freelance journalist with special interest in Chinese foreign policy, East Asian regional security and resource diplomacy in Africa and Antarctica. Comments and suggestions on this article can be sent to [email protected]