JOHANNESBURG ― The contrast couldn’t be starker. As U.S. President Donald Trump’s government continues to champion isolationism and undermine decades-old international relationships, China is rolling out its Belt and Road Initiative, or BRI, a project to build a new “Silk Road” that could change the meaning of globalization itself. Africa is at the margins of both of these developments, but its future will be determined by them.
As someone who grew up in Africa, the project stirs a tangle of emotions. While it will directly affect East and North Africa, there is the chance that it could spur desperately needed development all along Africa’s eastern seaboard, where countries are still trying to recover from the proxy conflicts of the Cold War.
For me, it comes down to African agency: Are African governments doing enough to achieve gains that can be shared? Or are their citizens being left to pick up the tab? The issue isn’t just about an increasing amount of Chinese power in Africa, but about what local leaders will allow outside forces like China to do with that influence as well. The breakdown of trust between African leaders and the African population is being put to the test ― and even exacerbated ― by ventures like Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative.
Breaking Down The Belt And Road Initiative
The Belt and Road Initiative breaks down into two parts, one over land and another over sea. The former, known as the Silk Road Economic Belt, is made up of interlinked rail lines, communications networks, and oil and gas pipelines running from Chongqing in China to Duisburg in Germany that connect the economic powerhouses of the Pearl and Yangtze Rivers with Rotterdam and Hamburg.
The second section ― the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road ― is a series of linked shipping lanes from Quanzhou in China’s Fujian province to Piraeus in Greece. It is enabled by a selection of massive port expansions from Colombo in Sri Lanka to Mombasa in Kenya. From there, it passes through the Suez Canal to the Mediterranean, and then overland to northern Europe. The maritime part of the scheme officially ends in Greece.
Beijing hasn’t committed itself to a timetable, and the criteria for what counts as a Belt and Road project are sometimes vague. However, if the scheme is fully realized, it will involve 65 countries and impact about 60 percent of the world’s population. It will also be expensive. PricewaterhouseCoopers estimated that it will cost roughly $1 trillion, with about $250 billion worth of BRI-related projects already underway or commissioned. Meanwhile, Beijing is hyping BRI extensively, with everything from aid to space travel being described as falling within the Belt and Road frame. BRI is thus way more than a development initiative. Rather, it presents a new China-centric narrative of globalization ― a story that can fit many disparate elements into a wider geopolitical logic centered on the Middle Kingdom.
Africa is particularly susceptible to this new story of globalization. After all, few places suffered more under the old, Western-centered version of globalization than Africa. China, in contrast, is a relatively unknown entity to many Africans and thus offers an appeal that the West doesn’t with its considerably more weighty historical baggage.
For Africa, BRI isn’t only a better connection to the Chinese market, but also to European and Middle Eastern markets closer by. This, together with the promise of Chinese-funded infrastructure, has raised African interest in the initiative, even as some Africans have misgivings about the rise of Chinese influence. The launch this year of a new Chinese-funded rail network, which will link the interior of Kenya to the Belt and Road port of Mombasa in the country’s coast, revealed this ambivalence. As leaders praised it as a massive achievement that will supercharge Kenya’s future development, popular opinion was more divided, with complaints that the project is too expensive and will lead to undue Chinese influence in the country.
China’s Impact On The Continent
According to the Chinese government’s official plans, BRI has two African hubs: Kenya and Egypt. But Chinese-funded rail and communication networks are also linking other East African countries like Ethiopia, Tanzania and Rwanda to the BRI route. The most notable of these is Djibouti, the home of China’s first overseas military base, key to combating piracy along the African leg of the BRI sea route. The military base is only a few miles from America’s Camp Lemonnier base, opening up Djibouti to potential conflict. Yet, its government is already talking about turning the tiny country into a Dubai-style transit and logistics hub.
This is a prime example of the fact that while East Africa, where much of China’s direct influence is, makes up the southernmost corner of BRI and only represents a small fraction of the whole scheme, the initiative has massive implications for the continent as a whole. This is because BRI doesn’t only touch Kenya’s eastern seaboard, it links with internal infrastructure networks also financed by China as well.
The most significant of these is Kenya’s newly inaugurated Standard Gauge Railway. This Chinese-financed and built network links Mombasa and Nairobi, and future extensions will connect to an existent Chinese-built line between Ethiopia’s capital of Addis Ababa and Djibouti, as well as to other countries in the region. Eventually this internal network could link countries as distant as Rwanda, Uganda and Djibouti to Kenya’s harbors, and therefore to both China and Europe, via the BRI route. The combination of port and anti-piracy expansion will arguably smooth long-distance trade with China, while facilitating African trade via closer BRI hubs, like the Greek port of Piraeus.
China’s inclusion of Africa in the BRI means the continent is suddenly confronted with a whole new set of opportunities and quandaries. On the positive side, some East African governments see the influx of Chinese investment in infrastructure and manufacturing as a way to bridge infrastructure gaps and to position their countries as new logistics and manufacturing hubs that could serve not only Africa, but also the Middle East and Europe.
“There is a nagging fear that Africa will once again become a cog in someone else’s machine ― that the African future will be endlessly deferred.”
Take Mozambique, for example, a country devastated by civil wars fueled by outside interests. Mozambique recently discovered offshore natural gas. While not officially a BRI country, it is positioned to benefit from BRI-related port and shipping expansion, in order to sell natural gas to China. The benefits to Mozambique here seem to be a net positive. However, even with all this hope, there is a nagging fear that Africa will once again become a cog in someone else’s machine ― that the African future will be endlessly deferred.
The complexity of these emotions is closely linked to individual Africans’ responses to China’s growing influence on the continent. Conversations with different Africans about the initiative run from some condemning the cheap Chinese imports undercutting local companies, to others talking about launching new careers on their new Chinese smartphones. As some complain about working conditions at Chinese companies, others are learning Mandarin in the hope of studying in China. BRI will intensify these contradictions: it is bringing more Chinese goods, more Chinese money and more Chinese people, all while Africa is still trying to make up its mind how to feel.
And on top of that, East African economists worry that BRI-related infrastructure is going to create a massive new debt burden and undermine domestic development priorities.
As the debates about whether BRI will increase the poaching of African animals to satisfy the demand of Chinese consumers, and whether Chinese companies are hiring enough local workers, rage on the continent, some critics doubt whether BRI is achievable at all. But in a way, its imaginative sweep still stands in contrast to the West’s current isolationism.
A New Phase Of Globalization And A Potential Proxy War
Throughout the last two centuries, the story of globalization has been a Western story. Globalization, as we came to know it after the Second World War, remains linked to Western colonialism, and our stories about globalization remain West-centric. Think, for example, of our hope that authoritarian countries like Myanmar will adopt Western-style democracy, or our fears that non-Western countries’ desire for a Western car-based, meat-eating lifestyle will fry the planet. These stories are largely oversimplified, but they are powerful because they often feel true. They give us a template to understand a dizzyingly complex world. Throughout the 20th century, the hegemony of the West also shaped these narratives.
Now there is a new story about globalization, one that links pre-Western globalization ― the Silk Road ― to a vision of future globalization where the West is at best an outcrop, far from the center. For the first time, the West is sidelined from a narrative it used to think of as its birthright. This raises many questions about how the West will react to its changing status, and what specific global role China will play.
In Africa, it raises questions about whether the continent can leverage enough support from various rising powers to avoid becoming a proxy in a battle between big powers. While Djibouti with its many foreign military bases is a key spark for this fear, the competing agendas of Chinese and Western funders, corporations and nongovernmental organizations on the continent means that African governments are already playing a careful game of balancing various foreign powers.
Beijing is marketing BRI in Africa as a ”win-win development.” However, many Africans have their doubts, worrying that it could bring new forms of domination. While these fears differ from country to country, they are frequently less about the possibility of outright neocolonialism and more reflect a chasm between African populations and African governments. The question isn’t simply what will China do to Africa, but rather, what will African governments allow powerful external and internal actors (of which China is only one, albeit a powerful, example) to do to African people?
In conversations with ordinary Africans, one frequently finds an assumption that their own governments are in China’s pocket. That elites will profit from deals with Chinese companies, while local populations will be stuck with the financial and environmental bill, gaining little benefit from their resources. It certainly won’t be the first time this happened to African populations.
That said, at least China wants to do business. For all the fretting in the West about “losing” Africa to China, Western governments seem unaware of the depth of Africa’s exhaustion with the West. There is a pervasive sense in Africa that the West is incapable of breaking out of its paternalistic view of Africa as only a series of problems to solve. There is fatigue with the West’s bias towards aid rather than eliminating internal subsidies that would open markets to African agriculture, its phobia of boatloads of African migrants, its fixations with disease and military drones. There is also a sense that the problem of Western racism is intractable.
“Despite the many misgivings Africans feel about China, they are also making a hard-nosed calculation that the continent can profit from a close relationship with China in a way it can’t with the West.”
I recently conducted an impromptu poll of a group of South African students ― all young black women. I asked them where they would they go if I offered them an all-expenses-paid vacation. I expected many to answer New York or London, but in a group of 10 not one wanted to visit the United States or the United Kingdom. When I asked them why, one said she doesn’t want to spend her holiday being hassled by police. This isn’t to say that China is much better with regard to racism. In fact, it might be the power of U.S. media that influenced this response. These students are passionate consumers of U.S. pop culture, and have a high awareness of current U.S. conversations around race. While they can see the U.S. in unflattering detail, China still feels more distant. When I pressed them, most opted for beach vacations in places like Brazil and Mauritius, and spiritual journeys to India.
The U.S.-China dichotomy in Africa isn’t as simple as it looks from the outside. It has a lot to do with perceptions of being unwanted, and these sometimes trump what you actually want. The West telegraphs what it thinks of Africans in a million small ways. I recently applied for a visa to travel to China. The entire process took a brisk 45 minutes. I couldn’t help comparing it to applying for a visa to Canada a few years ago, which included being made to wait in the sun for two hours and then shoved against a wall and body-searched. And I’m speaking from a place of white privilege ― black Africans are treated so much worse. In this calculus, China at least paying lip service to win-win cooperation is enough to differentiate it from the perception of an Africa-phobic West.
Obviously, one can’t apply this anecdote to an entire geopolitical relationship. But African commentators have pointed out that little came of former U.S. President Barack Obama’s Power Africa initiative, and that the African Growth and Opportunity Act still mostly favors U.S. extractive industries. And, of course, President Trump has yet to mention Africa in policy discussions at all. China at least has initiated a relationship. It at least offers the proposition of Africa being valued as a market, and increasingly, as a production hub. And it has proved willing to help build the infrastructure that would make that possible. So it is not a surprise that BRI rhetoric plays relatively well in Africa.
Despite the many misgivings Africans feel about China, they are also making a hard-nosed calculation that the continent can profit from a close relationship with China in a way it can’t with the West.
Whether China’s Belt and Road Initiative will ever be a reality, and what part Africa will play in it, remain open questions. But even so, it is already offering Africa a glimpse of an alternative future. This future is by no means certain, or even necessarily good. But compared to Africa’s toxic relationship with the West, it is at least different.