Clashing Geopolitical Railways: China’s Belt And Road Initiative And US Effort To Redefine African Infrastructure – Analysis


From the very beginning, China’s Road and Belt Initiative stands as a monumental venture in the domain of infrastructure and economic expansion, sprawling across the continents of Asia, Europe, and Africa. The initiative has garnered commitments from 52 African governments in the form of Memorandums of Understanding (MoU), resulting in the infusion of astronomical sums of capital into the construction of pivotal infrastructure such as roads, ports, railways, and more. While ostensibly aimed at enhancing continental connectivity, this extensive network of projects also serves as a strategic conduit for China to gain unprecedented access to Africa’s abundant mineral resources. 

Notably, the initiative has enabled China to establish a formidable foothold in resource-rich nations like Zambia and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), where a staggering 80% of copper mines are already under Chinese ownership. This strategic positioning provides China with an advantageous grip on Africa’s vast mineral wealth, particularly crucial in countries boasting substantial reserves of copper and other indispensable minerals. The cumulative expenditure by China in this endeavor has surpassed a trillion dollars, underscoring the magnitude of its investments, which, at least in part, are strategically geared towards securing a dependable supply of resources pivotal to the global energy transition.

In a bid to counterbalance this influence, the United States is funneling millions into the Lobito Corridor project. Undoubtedly, the challenge of sourcing metals crucial for the energy transition continues to plague Western nations. Trafigura, a prominent commodity trade consortium, contends that the Lobito Atlantic Railway will “offer a more expeditious western route for the transportation of metals and minerals originating from the Democratic Republic of Congo.”

The venture involves the construction of around 550 km of railway in Zambia, stretching from the Jimbe border to Chingola in the Zambian copper belt, coupled with the development of 260 km of feeder roads within the corridor. Facilitating the transportation of these valuable resources from the Central African copper belt to Western markets assumes paramount importance for the United States and Europe, particularly in the unfolding landscape of the energy transition.

Earlier, the US administration delineated strategic initiatives to allocate investments in a nascent railway endeavor, designed to interconnect the copper-abundant precincts of Zambia and the Democratic Republic of Congo with the Angolan port of Lobito. Departing from the conventional course via the century-old Benguela railway, the United States envisages diverting resource transportation towards the western trajectory, specifically through the Lobito Corridor, as opposed to the customary eastern route via the Dar El Salaam port. The envisaged railway aspires to seamlessly interface with the Lobito port, thereby optimizing traffic efficiency and establishing a consequential trade conduit emanating from the Congolese copper belt and extending to the Atlantic Ocean.

In addition to this primary objective, the enhanced railway infrastructure is poised to streamline the conveyance of indispensable commodities and resources to the region, thereby fostering the advancement of business enterprises and commercial pursuits. Significantly, in the month of September, during the periphery of the G20 summit convened in India, the United States and the European Union collaborated in the initiation of feasibility studies pertaining to a prospective greenfield expansion of the railway network linking Zambia and Angola.

The magnitude of this railway initiative is of paramount importance, with its temporal relevance being equally noteworthy. Chinese Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) in Africa persists at levels considerably surpassing those of Western nations, notably as Beijing has substantiated both the intention and financial capacity to extend substantial loans to African countries since 2013. However, this competitive advantage has experienced a contraction in recent times. The post-pandemic economic deceleration and a diminishing capacity for lending have resulted in a decline in Belt and Road Initiative (BRI)-related investments, plummeting from its zenith of $125 billion in 2015 to $70 billion in 2022. In response to other economic challenges in Beijing, the Chinese government has opted to suspend funding for energy initiatives in Africa. Consequently, this has precipitated a substantial downturn in financial assistance to the continent, plummeting to less than US$1 billion—a nadir not witnessed in approximately two decades.

In consonance with Washington’s strategy of wielding soft power in Africa, this venture is emblematic of a more expansive geopolitical agenda to fortify connections with African nations. Through substantial investments in infrastructure undertakings, the United States endeavors to stimulate economic growth, generate employment prospects, and cultivate enduring alliances that can be advantageous both to African countries and U.S. strategic interests. This strategic approach is underscored by the fact that Vice President Kamala Harris undertook visits to no fewer than three African countries—Ghana, Tanzania, and Zambia—in the year 2023, emphasizing the multifaceted dimensions of this concerted effort.

While the U.S. undertaking signifies a positive stride, it confronts a myriad of formidable challenges. China’s substantial lead in Africa, manifested in both well-established infrastructure and diplomatic entanglements, presents a formidable impediment. The Belt and Road Initiative has solidified China’s standing as a dependable collaborator for African nations seeking infrastructure development, necessitating assiduous efforts from the U.S. to cultivate a comparable level of trust. Furthermore, the United States must deftly manage complex geopolitical prospects, historical affinities, and regional dynamics. African nations, cognizant of their sovereignty and national interests, are likely to adopt a judicious approach, seeking equilibrium in their engagements with both China and the U.S.

For African leaders, the focal inquiry revolves less around what the U.S. or China stands to gain from these agreements but rather centers on what Africa can derive from the exploitation of its resources. The underlying consideration underscores a discerning evaluation of the mutual benefits and implications, emphasizing the imperative for African nations to assertively safeguard their interests in the midst of perplexing global power dynamics.

Amidst the initiation of its expansive railway venture in Africa to counteract China’s Belt and Road Initiative, the United States finds itself confronting high stakes. While the obstacles are daunting, this investment signals a renewed American commitment to actively involve itself in Africa, acknowledging the region’s escalating significance within the global geopolitical arena. The uncertainty lingers as to whether the U.S. can close the gap on China’s well-established foothold, yet the contest for influence in Africa undeniably promises to mold the future course of international relations.

The prosperity of the U.S. undertaking hinges precariously on its capacity to deftly maneuver the nuances of the African continent, cultivate trust with local collaborators, and deliver substantive advantages that resonate with the aspirations of African nations. The critical appraisal of this endeavor underscores the imperative for the U.S. to not only contend with the challenges posed by China but also to adeptly address the sophisticated landscape of African politics and socio-economic dynamics, ensuring the efficacy of its foray into the continent.

Global and regional entities are also contributing to the undertaking, as the pressure to secure critical minerals vital for the green transition intensifies. In October, the African Development Bank (AfDB) aligned with international collaborators to mobilize funds for the $16 billion Multinational Lobito Transportation Corridor Programme. The AfDB’s participation underscores the imperative of cooperative efforts in securing financial backing for expansive infrastructure initiatives capable of propelling economic development and regional integration in Africa. The World Bank has also entered the fray through a $300 million initiative titled the “Accelerating Economic Diversification and Job Creation Project,” which will directly interface with the Lobito Corridor. It is noteworthy that the World Bank had abstained from financing any infrastructure project in Africa since the year 2002, adding a layer of significance to its recent involvement.

Beijing has not just taken the lead but has a substantial advantage over Western powers and regional financial institutions in terms of investing in African infrastructure. The daily commutes of residents in cities like Lagos, Kinshasa, or Addis Ababa often explore infrastructure likely constructed by Chinese firms with the assistance of Chinese loans. The current economic challenges and financial predicaments in Beijing are opening up new possibilities for the US, Europe, and G7 nations to narrow this gap. Nevertheless, even with the concerted efforts of the US to counter Chinese overseas development funding, it seems improbable that a deceleration in project funding will result in the West seizing the forefront of infrastructure initiatives. This is especially true considering African nations’ resolute determination to generate and retain value within the continent.

Syed Raiyan Amir

Syed Raiyan Amir is a Senior Research Associate at The KRF Center for Bangladesh and Global Affairs (CBGA).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *