China's transforming Africa by the rail or off the trail

Authors: Joseph Ndungu & Wang Li

A
lthough China highly spoke of its first African built railway from Tanzania to Zambia during the Cold War heydays, it is a rare occasion for China to link a railroad to a grand design, such as “the Belt & Road Initiative” proposed by President Xi Jin- ping in 2013.

Recently, after the completion of the railroad from Nairobi, the capital city of Kenya, to its key port city Mombasa, a three-part documentary produced by Xinhua News Agency in a title of “My Railway, My Story” made its debut on Kenyan television on 29th and 30th May respectively and on Chinese international television New China TV. The major public state broadcaster in Kenya, the Kenya Broadcasting Corporation also showed the two parts "Bridges" and "Stations" documentary which revolve around the 79 bridges and many stations along the 480-km long railroad with stories of people who were dedicated to its construction during prime time slots. Kenyan observers lauded the initial two part documentary which aired and showcased spectacular Chinese workmanship in the construction of Standard Gauge Railway. For sure, the legacy of the railway line would live on, as the SGR is set to transform the country's socio-economic bearing for many years to come. However, the question that comes into focus in the many minds of many and the subject of this article is why did China invested 3billion US$ into the huge East African rail-network and how does the world perceived the railroad in East Africa within the backdrop of Chinese-initiated “Belt and Road” strategy?

Politically, 2017 marks a seminal year for the implementation of the outcomes acceded to at the Johannesburg Sino-Africa summit held in 2016, for China its plans to promote her comprehensive ties with Africa en bloc to proximate a strategic partnership are on course. Due to this, the primary purposes of the railroad from Mombasa to Nairobi marked the attainment of consensus with African countries in view of further advancing long-term cooperation between China and Africa. Though, the first Chinese-built railroad in Africa was the Tanzania—Zambia Railway Authority (TAZARA) which was completed as a turn-key project between 1970 and 1975, and the project was financed through an interest-free loan of RMB 988 million (equivalent to US$ 500 million) from China then. Actually, it was Premier Zhou En- lai’s Safari during 1963-1964 that laid down the key tenets of China’s aid programs to Africa. Due to China's decades-long development programs, the majority of newly- independent African states not only extended recognition to Beijing as the legitimate government of China, but also demonstrated unwavering endorsement of Beijing’s ascension as a permanent occupant of a seat in the United Nations Security Council (UNSC). Since then, with its burgeoning power, China has become proactive and more ambitious in attempts to expand Chinese engineered infrastructure in Africa with the feature projects of building railroads and high-speed highways.

Accordingly, the railroad from Nairobi to Mombasa and the subsequent transformation of African-Chinese cooperation are not only essential but also inevitable. Yet, unlike Western foreign-aid policies, which generally prioritize political issues and social values, Chinese external aid have been primarily driven to the economic issues. On one hand, this is consistent with China’s adherence to non-intervention in the domestic affairs of other states, since China and its African friends have worked closely with the enhancement based on terms of “mutual trust, win-win and cooperation”, as reiterated by the Chinese government. On the other hand, Kenyan officials are looking forward to a future of unprecedented transformation upon the launch of the Nairobi--Mombasa railroad. As stated, the newly--built railroad line not only revolutionized the transport sector of the country, but more important in expanding to stimulate investments in advanced manufacturing in Kenya and the region involved. It is widely hold that this modern railway has already boosted Kenya's capacity, prestige and attractiveness to investors. Upholding the sentiments, Munene Mungai, a senior assistant director for infrastructure in Kenyan government, hailed the launch of SGR project for setting a precedent for other Africa countries aspiring to achieve middle-income status. ‘’Now Kenya is to enter a critical milestone in its history since the first modern railroad has been in operations’’. As Mungai told Xinhua news during a recent interview, "This is a new dispensation in our transport sector and Kenya will experience rapid transformation as the SGR is operational from the first day of June." As an economically strong state in East Africa, Kenya is banking on the SGR to ease congestion at the port of Mombasa and reduce cost of transporting bulk cargo and passengers to the hinterlands and the neighboring states.

Doubtless, they are asymmetrical in views of the territorial sizes and economic capacity, but the Chinese government regards as advantageous, African states' potential assumption of non-replaceable participants in the “Belt & Road initiative”. For this consideration, China and Africa have provided as joint statement declaring the establishment and promotion of bilateral relations based on a “comprehensive and win-win strategic partnership”. Among many other strategic measures and bold reform initiatives discussed at the multilevel talks between the two sides, China evidently expects that the railroad from Nairobi to Mombasa would be able to involve certain, if not all, African states into the new silk road economic zones and the 21st century maritime silk road, linking China to Africa through the Kenyan port of Mombasa. Eventually that would link both China and Africa to many other ports on at least three continents. In so doing, the great potential of sub-global if not global interaction would be achieved.

In a long-run, the vision of the project, encompassing its land and maritime aspects, is a remarkable one to the community of participating states. Even at the concept stage, Kenya, especially on the coast region, greeted the collaboration with China with excitement, looking to seize the gargantuan opportunities offered by the “Belt and Road Initiative”. As the project of the century, the “BRI” is expected to open up vast opportunities for Kenya and Africa as well. Now, with the completion of the first phase of the Standard Gauge Railway funded by China and Kenya, Africa is well positioned to reap from benefits that will be realized. To that ends, local government officials, scholars and trade lobby groups are optimistic that cooperation based on the win-win principle will open new frontiers of progress in Africa’s various fields, and the development of further trade linking the Kenyan port of Mombasa with those in Europe, Middle East and China. As a part of this vision, China has been the main guarantor in the construction of mega infrastructure projects in East Africa including the standard gauge railway linking Mombasa in Kenya and Kampala in Uganda. Likewise, China is behind the development of Lamu Port and various projects on the Lamu Southern Sudan--Ethiopian transport corridor (LAPSSET). When fully completed, these infrastructure projects will position Kenya as a regional economic powerhouse. As a result, Kenyan policy makers continue to support the concept of a 21st Chinese Maritime Silk Road and have realigned it with the country's long term socioeconomic blueprint.

With the construction of the second Chinese trans-African railway and China's 21st Maritime Silk Road, Kenya seeks to position herself as the gateway to east and central Africa while at the same time positioning itself as a point of exit for all products destined to Asia and Europe through port of Mombasa. Given this, China on her part as a rising power with the second largest economy in the world takes more responsibilities in the world affairs. It is true that potentially the transformation of Africa by high-speed transport and communications that will lift large parts of the continent out of under development, as China sees the matter. But, building up the transnational rail lines, though, demands the suppression of security threats that could disrupt trade flows and even mutual trust. It is widely held that “BRI” stems from China’s confidence in its rapidly-growing economic strengths while it also requires making long-term political stability possible. As African states have shown the strong and sincere desire to draw on Chinese expertise and financing to alleviate critical infrastructure bottlenecks, China as usual sizes up African states as strategic partners. True to this China’s policy-making is careful, conservative and consensus-driven, for its overriding concern is its economic growth which has been seen as the fundamental issue to the security of the country and the legitimacy of the ruling party.

For China the pace of transformation of Africa has been remarkable. Even though China’s short-term intension remains economic and diplomatic, it seems inevitable that China’s basic interests will eventually lead it to far greater involvement in the continent. Though diverse in both economics and politics, Africa remains sided with China on international issues, and this quasi-alliance strictly delimits the scope of Sino-African collaboration and the opportunity to assist in the formation of Chinese conceptions and strategy in the world politics for decades to come. It is unmistakable that Chinese leaders are well-aware of this advantage.

Joseph Ndungu holding his PhD in IR & Research Fellow at SIPA

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