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Problems and perspectives of the New Silk Road

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Since becoming General Secretary of the Communist Party of China in 2012 and then President in 2013, Xi Jinping has launched a number of strategic initiatives at home and abroad. These are aimed at ensuring the country’s political stability and economic growth, while affirming China as a new major player internationally. Certainly the most notable is the New Silk Road, which is now more often called the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Invoking the historical imagery of the ancient Silk Road, the BRI project envisages the construction of massive infrastructures that connect China to the rest of the world, but also an intense collaboration in the financial, economic, scientific, educational, communication and health fields. The goal is to strengthen trade and improve connectivity between China and Africa, Eurasia, Europe, the Middle East and South and Southeast Asia. Although several elements of these New Silk Roads are already in place or under construction, most of the project currently exists only on paper.

Beyond their economic dimension, obviously not to be overlooked given the pharaonic sums invested, often at the expense of the debt of the partner countries, these new Silk Roads benefit above all from an effort by Chinese diplomacy and a deployment of soft power completely without earlier in the 21st century. Interpreted from the Western point of view, this is a hegemonic project aimed at creating a new world order, capable of redefining the hierarchies that arose after the Second World War. But seen by emerging societies – such as African ones – this is a project that brings hope, but also uncertainties and sometimes even disappointments.

I. On which lines is this project developed?

Announced in two speeches in Kazakhstan (September 2013) and Indonesia (October 2013), the BRI project has two components, one on land, the Silk Road Economic Belt, SREB, and one maritime namely the Maritime Silk Road, MSR. Unlike many previous initiatives, China is supporting its project with significant funds.

The BRI project is therefore a complex, very ambitious project, comprising several dimensions: that of transport, that of finance, customs policy, and political partnership. In other words, it offers:

1) An important land, rail and road component (Silk Road Economic Road).

2) A maritime component with the promotion of two axes, China-Malacca-Suez and, since 2017, the northern maritime route (21st Century Maritime Silk Road).

3) Enhanced economic cooperation, including freer trade and customs integration, financial integration and coordination of economic policies.

4) An energy cooperation with the strengthening of energy interconnection, in particular through the construction of transport infrastructures (oil and gas pipelines, high and very high voltage lines) and production (dams, nuclear reactors).

5) A Cooperation aimed at strengthening ties between populations through better telecommunications infrastructures (submarine cables, optical fibers, 5G); harmonization of educational programs; tourism promotion; cooperation in the health sector (renovation and construction of hospitals, training of hospital staff) and cultural with the construction of museums dedicated to the history of the Silk Road in the countries crossed by the Belt and Road Initiative.

In other words, this program obviously seems extremely ambitious and expensive. Estimates vary and place the cost of all these projects between $ 4,000 and $ 26,000 billion, which China does not intend to finance: the beneficiary countries of the projects will have to contribute to their financing, in particular by borrowing the necessary capital, often from Chinese banks. , which raises the question of their solvency on the financial markets. This is important because the media often report Chinese investments under the BRI, while most of the time China lends, and it is the states that invest and borrow. There are obviously counter-examples, such as when Chinese companies take a stake in a project, but for many of them it is commercial loans at rather high rates in the field of international finance, between 2% and 3%.

In the short term, the BRI aims above all to promote transport corridors, on the sea with the Maritime Silk Road, and on the mainland with the promotion of 6 land, rail and road corridors, between China and Europe, Central Asia, the Middle East, Asia Southern and Southeast Asia. Several projects are already partly underway, others are being studied.

II. Port component

The first aspect of the transport component aims to strengthen the position of Chinese companies in the development of a port network between China and Europe through the traditional route of the Strait of Malacca acca and the Suez Canal, but also includes the development of port infrastructure in Africa. More recently, Chinese projects in the Arctic, mainly along the North Sea route in Siberia, have been integrated into this maritime component, making it a flexible framework of variable geometry projects, allowing for new projects to be included and which can even see some of them fail. It should also be noted that the active projects of many Chinese companies in port development in Central America (Nicaragua Canal project; actual equity investments in the ports of Cristobal and Colon on both sides of the Panama Canal) are not currently part of the BRI project .

The development of this maritime component essentially involves either the acquisition of a stake in Chinese companies in the management of ports along the main sea route (as in Greece in the case of Piraeus), or the construction of port terminals in Build, Operate, Transfer mode. (BOT), granting Chinese operators control over the long-term management of the terminal and thus allowing them to control the development of the terminal, but not representing the acquisition of these infrastructures.

In this regard, we mention the gradual acquisition of the Greek port of Piraeus by the shipping company COSCO (China Ocean Shipping Company), starting from 2010, with the aim of transforming it into a gateway for Chinese products in Mediterranean Europe. ; the acquisition in 2015 of a majority stake in Turkey’s 3rd largest container terminal, Kumport, by COSCO, China Merchant Holdings and CIC Capital. Also noteworthy is the acquisition for 99 years by the company China Merchants Port Holding of 85% of the capital (1.12 billion dollars) of the company that manages the port of Hambantota, in a context of over-indebtedness of the Sri Lankan government ; Djibouti, with the acquisition of 23.5% of the capital of the port by China Merchants Port Holding; the acquisition of a stake in several other ports or terminals by COSCO, including Chancay in Peru (60%) , Antwerp Gateway (20%), Noatum Container Terminal in Valencia (Spain) (51%), Noatum Container Terminal in Bilbao (39, 78%).

the expansion of the port of Gwadar in Pakistan, the hub of the China-Pakistan economic corridor, with a 43-year lease until 2059; the construction of the port of Bagamoyo (Tanzania) for $ 10 billion; the construction of the port of Lamu (Kenya), completed in 2019; the planned modernization of the port of Mombasa (Kenya); Davao, Cebu (Philippines), Sihanoukville (Cambodia) and Kyaukpyu (Myanmar) In addition, Chinese companies have also won large contracts such as for the construction of the new terminal in Walvis Bay (Namibia): China Harbor Engineering Company is the contracting authority, but the project is financed by the African Development Bank. This strategy allows the Dragon to link up with the “pearl necklace” project as evidenced by the opening in 2017 of a Chinese military base in Djibouti and by the Chinese warships in Gwadar . In the short term, commercial infrastructure development appears to be the priority and there is no evidence that there is a genuine Chinese military strategy. In the long term, however, the integration of this port development into a naval military strategy cannot be excluded.

III Terrestrial component

China wants to take full advantage of the comparative advantages of the regions concerned by adopting a proactive strategy of opening up and improving interaction in Asia. The Silk Roads initiative is divided into six corridors connecting China to Europe and covering the entire Asian continent. The railway infrastructure plays a central role.

Its main axis (or northern route) designates the network of railways and gas pipelines that should eventually cover Eurasia and connect China to Europe through Mongolia, Russia and Kazakhstan (Eurasian corridor or China-Kazakhstan-Russia). Some of these corridors related infrastructures already exist and are used daily by freight trains connecting China to several European cities.

The other two main axes of the land initiative are the Central Corridor linking the Great West of China to Central Asia and the Middle East to Turkey via Iran, and the China-Pakistan Corridor (CEPC), or Southern Route, from the province of Xinjiang at the Pakistani port of Gwadar, Pakistani-owned but under the operational control of a Chinese company, China Overseas Port Holding Company Pakistan.

Three secondary corridors must complete the network of land roads: the China-Mongolia-Russia corridor, the Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar (BCIM) corridor – the least advanced of the six corridors due to the lack of transnational agreements – and finally China-Indochina through i l Northern Laos through the construction of a new line which requires numerous structures.

The railway infrastructure is located in the six corridors officially defined by the government body responsible for overseeing the Silk Roads project, National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC) in 2015: this is the backbone of the Belt and Road initiative (hereinafter BRI) , even if the BRI project is not limited to the railway aspects. This great weight of railway transport can be understood from an economic point of view: it is in fact a matter of promoting trade and facilitating the reorganization of the distribution of manufacturing companies in China and Asia and for this reason the railway constitutes a more efficient and more economical, especially compared to the road, due to the large volumes it can carry.

Through these corridors, rail freight services are rapidly expanding between China and Europe and are starting to develop between China and the Middle East. In 2013 there were 80 trains between China and Europe; 815 in 2015; then 1,752 in 2016, 3,673 in 2017 and 6,363 in 2018.The volume of China-Europe traffic increased from 114,000 tons in 2013 to 511,000 tons in 2016 while the volume of containers is also booming.

The development of these trade links is not limited to trade between Western Europe and China: links are also established with Russia, with Iran, and China also wishes to develop rail services to “Southeast Asia” . Although there are plans to build new tracks, these China-Europe services rely heavily on the existing network.

These connections then mobilize existing, sometimes relatively old networks: so for the Trans-Siberian (1916), the TransMandchourien (1903) or the TransMongolien (1961) for the northern route. The central road crosses the Lanzhou-Urumqi line completed in 1962, extended from Urumqi to Alashankou in 1990 with a single track, to connect at the time to the USSR at Druzhba / Dosty (1990). The current service then passes through Kazakhstan on the former Soviet network via Astana. China intends to complete and modernize this network, which is sometimes insufficient to cope with a significant increase in traffic. In addition to the possibility of doubling the single-track sections and completing the electrification of the networks, several projects have recently been completed or started:

1) The Lanzhou – Urumqi high-speed rail line (LGV, 250 km / h at commercial speed) (1,776 km), completed in 2013, clears the conventional track for passenger transport.

2) The Jinghe – Yining – Khorgos line (286 km), completed in December 2009. In December 2011, a railway line between Khorgos and Zhetigen, near Almaty, was completed in Kazakhstan, allowing connection to the Kazakh network. China has high hopes for the development of the Khorgos multimodal station to increase capacity in Europe as well as in Central Asia and the Middle East.

3) A Kashgar – Osh railway line is planned through the Torugart Pass, and from there to Tashkent and the Central Asian network.

4) In June 2016, the Pap-Angren line was opened, connecting the Ferghana valley network to the Uzbek network and thus doubling the route that passes through Tajikistan via Khujand.

5) The Kunming-Dali railway line was completed in 1998 and its extension began in Ruili, on the border with Myanmar, in 2011.

Finally, projects have been developed for the construction of new infrastructures.High-speed lines are rarely designed for the mixed transport of passengers and heavy goods, but they allow to free conventional tracks from passenger traffic and thus offer greater flexibility to freight convoys. . The Moscow-Kazan LGV project, with Chinese but substantially Russian participation (1.52 m), was signed in 2015, as part of the vast LGV Moscow-Beijing project decided in 2014, but the future of this project remains uncertain.

IV. Southeast Asia

The future Boten-Vientiane line in Laos is part of the Belt and Road Initiative which is not limited to the ancient space of the Silk Road. The most visible aspect of the New Silk Roads is China Railway Group Limited’s investments in new railway lines, including Kunming-Singapore. The China-Indochina corridor completes the economic belt by connecting to the Greater Mekong program, i.e. the peninsular part of Southeast Asia where China is seeking to develop rail (and sea) transport for easier access to the Indian Ocean , making it possible to bypass the South China Sea, a strategically unstable region.

Repeatedly announced and postponed since 2010, work on the Kunming-Boten-Luang Prabang-Vientiane line began in early 2017. Its 4 14 kilometers is expected to include 32 stations (21 of which have been operational since inauguration), 75 tunnels (198 km) and 167 bridges (62 km) on the most direct route to Bangkok via Nong Khai (Thailand) Thailand is developing a railway network with Laos through two railway projects in the north-east in Kuala Lumpur (Malaysia) and Singapore thanks to the construction of a TGV between them. Until then, the freezing of the project was linked to financial, technical and administrative reasons between Laos, China and Thailand. On December 25, 2016, a Sino-Laotian ceremony was held in Luang Prabang to mark the start of construction, which was attended by Laotian Prime Minister Thongloun. These works led by the China Railway Group Limited, particularly in the provinces of Luang Namtha (Boten) and Luang Prabang, consist mainly in the drilling of tunnels. The railway line, combined with a motorway, is expected to open in 2021.

Widely reported in the national and international press, the cost of the Boten-Vientiane project amounts to nearly 6 billion dollars. Laos and China have agreed on a split of 30% -70%. To start the construction ($ 2.38 billion), Laos provided $ 715 million while the rest of the sum ($ 1.67 billion) comes from the China Development Bank. As for the financial commitment of Laos, Vientiane takes 250 million dollars directly from its national budget (50 million dollars per year during the 5 years of construction) and has taken out a loan of 465 million dollars from the Export-Import Bank of China or Eximbank at the rate of 2.3% on a period of 35 years (no refunds during the first 5 years). However, no information is available on the remaining 60% ($ 3.62 billion) that would be provided by Chinese banks, in exchange for a significant stake in Laos-China Railway Company Limited (in particular the establishment and operation of a buffer zone 20 at Largo 50 m on both sides of the railway line on the entire route between Boten and Vientiane), a Sino-Laotian joint venture that manages the Laotian section.

Finally, the railway economic corridor that crosses northern Laos should make it possible, on the one hand, to reduce the costs of intra-Laotian transport and, on the other, to guarantee the transport of goods between the Chinese provinces in the interior. overseas markets in Southeast Asia (Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, etc.).

V. Some critical issues

Media rhetoric suggests that the BRI is a plan designed by China, matured in Beijing and implemented according to a well-ordered strategy. The reality is more complex. First, all the corridors promoted by the BRI largely reflect previous projects, some dating back to 1959 with the Trans Asia Railway (TAR) project launched by the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the United Nations for the Pacific (UNESCAP ) and its European counterpart, UNECE. The European Union with the TRACECA project (1993), the Asian Development Bank whose main shareholder is Japan, with the CAREC project (1997), and Western companies such as Deutsche Bahn, Hewlett Packard, Volkswagen, Audi in 2008, have surpassed China and considered building trans-Asian transport corridors.

Furthermore, China has set milestones well before 2013 and the official announcement of the launch of this strategy, without these currently qualifying as steps towards transport corridors, which suggests that the BRI is partly in the synthesis. of many previous projects, foreign and Chinese. Thus, the railway line to Alashankou was completed in 1990; in Kashgar, in 1999; in Khorgos, in 2009; the Kunming-Ruili route to Burma was designed in 1971.

The Kunming-Singapore project, which provides the substrate for railway projects in Southeast Asia, picks up on the projects of the colonial era, then of the ASEAN in 2000, then of the joint China-ASEAN project of 2004. If the line project is high speed via Laos is proceeding, other sub-projects are experiencing evident uncertainties: the Kunming-Burma railway project, relaunched in 2011, was canceled in 2014 by the Myanmar government. The Singapore-Malaysia TGV project, dating back to 2010, is experiencing significant political uncertainties: canceled in May 2018, it was postponed to June 2018 after Prime Minister Mahathir’s visit to Japan.

Some projects are not moving forward: the Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar (BCIM) corridor, which largely mirrors the 1959 TAR project, was relaunched in 1998 by the Yunnan government but remains in a dead end. The Kashgar-Gwadar railway line, the leading element of the China-Pakistan economic corridor, planned in 2010, is also not progressing; the Islamabad-Kashgar line is no longer even mentioned in the CPEC Long Term Plan 2017-2030 where only the road project remains. The Moscow-Kazan LGV project, originally designed by the Russians in 2009, is now the first stop on a Moscow-Beijing line. This project sees the start date of the works constantly postponed in a context of tensions on the financial package and the acquisition of shares of Chinese partners. The Kashgar-Osh railway project, designed in 1992, is also not progressing due to the large differences between China and Kyrgyzstan on the route.

The large Bagamoyo port project in Tanzania was first canceled in 2016, then relaunched, then discontinued again in 2019.

Furthermore, the very complex governance process of the BRI initiative does not support an interpretation in favor of a carefully planned and implemented project. Of course, the central government, mainly through the National Commission for Development and Reform (NDRC), directs and undertakes to coordinate all projects integrated in an often opportunistic way to the BRI, integrating projects that are often older and that sometimes matched the logic regional development. But many other actors intervene and make management more complex: central actors, of course, but with sometimes different programs, investment banks (policy banks), ministries, state-owned enterprises; and regional actors, especially provinces whose interests do not necessarily coincide with those of Beijing. The administration process of the People’s Republic also complicates the coordination of a homogeneous initiative: the leaders try to interpret very general political orientations issued by the central government, but according to their framework and their particular interests. It is this process that explains the opportunism that characterizes the addition of many projects to the BRI platform.

VI. An overall evaluation of the New Silk Roads

China wishes to reorganize Asia on the basis of a system of political and economic partnerships of which it would be at the center, and no longer on that of the American system of security and economic alliances, which it considers illegitimate. This is a long-term goal desired by Xi Jinping by 2049 (a date that coincides with the 100th anniversary of the PRC) and its success would allow Beijing to definitively establish its new status as a world power, which to date remains incomplete. especially at the military level. But the realization of the Silk Roads remains complex, despite the will shown by Xi Jinping. The challenges in China and abroad are many and the construction of the numerous infrastructures alone will not produce long-term political effects.

On the one hand, the construction of the new Silk Roads requires colossal funding. As creator and creator of the initiative, China has so far released 575 billion dollars to finance the initiative, but the plausible total of investments deemed necessary by 2049 is estimated between 4,000 and 26 trillion dollars, about double the GDP. China’s annual ($ 13.6 trillion in 2018).

Well, the mission of the Belt and Road Initiative is to provide and develop financing solutions. The financial resources announced by China are provided by a multitude of actors, both public and private, including the China Development Bank (900 billion), the Silk Roads Fund (40 billion), the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (50 billion ), the New BRICS Development Bank (10 billion), but also gold funds (Shandong Gold Group, Shaanxi Gold Group, etc.), etc. However, although China owns the New Silk Roads, it will necessarily need financing from foreign commercial banks, even if the latter do not seem very interested in financing the Chinese initiative given the enormous infrastructure projects that are not very profitable in the short and medium term. To attract them to the BRI project, China has therefore decided to accelerate the opening of its banking and financial sector to foreign investors, with limited success so far.

On the other hand, Xinjiang province is one of the key provinces of the New Silk Roads. Three of the six earthly economic corridors are expected to pass through it. However, this region shows inter-ethnic and inter-religious tensions and internal difficulties in the country (Tibet, Inner Mongolia). China is not immune to the uprisings of Uyghurs, of Muslim faith, in the vast territory of Xinjiang, which is slow to see economic growth translate into development, or even in urban areas (especially the capital Urumqi) where cultural-economic gaps create frustrations towards the non-Han community. The increasingly firm Uyghur nationalist demands and the new security formalities put in place by Beijing to prevent the radicalization of the Uyghur community (“re-education” camps, restriction of movement, collection of biometric data) are all problems that could slow down trade between Xinjiang and Central Asian countries.

Additionally, security threats have intensified along the route of the New Silk Roads. Whether in the Middle East, Central Asia, South Asia, Southeast Asia and other regions that are part of the initiative, terrorism could block the development of the six land corridors and piracy could do the same for sea routes. Undoubtedly, Central and South Asia, essential regions for land and sea interconnectivity projects, is facing serious problems linked to terrorism: many countries are regularly hit by attacks by Islamist groups and / or independence movements. The integration of different regions into the Chinese initiative therefore requires greater security and the participation of minorities, some of which are in armed conflict with the central power.

Finally, by its nature, the “Belt and Road” initiative is a project that promotes free trade and customs harmonization. After decades of rapid development, we are seeing a relative decline in globalization. Brexit and the rise of populism in many parts of the world have resulted in the stagnation of the regional and multilateral integration process and the establishment of protectionist policies. In the short term, the fact that the United States withdrew from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) negotiations, means the death of a competing project, may be beneficial to the Chinese initiative, but it is also a source of concern for Beijing. Trade protectionism and isolationism place uncertainties on foreign investment and international cooperation, the very foundations of the Belt and Road Initiative, which remains above all a project for the development of trade in the world.

And yet, the poor coordination of this project does not mean the absence of a general orientation led by the central government, which now has considerable political, economic and financial weight on the world stage. Although China is taking the lead, the success of the New Silk Roads does not entirely depend on Beijing. The challenges and obstacles are not only multiple, but the list seems to grow, as a consequence of the resistance of partner countries that do not necessarily accept the financial or economic constraints of Chinese companies. However, China now appears to be able to exert sufficient influence on the international stage to carry out a project whose reach will permanently mark the regional and global political landscape.

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COVID-19: New Dynamics to the World’s Politico-Economic Structure

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How ironic it is that a virus invisible from a naked human eye can manage to topple down the world and its dynamics. Breaking out of CoronaVirus, its spread across the globe and the diversity of consequences faced by the individual states all make it evident how the dynamics of the world could be reversed in months. Starting from the blame games regarding coronavirus to its geostrategic implications and the entire enigma between COVID-19 and politics, COVID-19 and economies have shaken the world. Whether it is the acclaimed super power, struggling powers or third world states or even individuals, the pandemic has unveiled the capability and credibility of all, especially in political and economic domains. Wearing masks in public, avoiding hand shake and maintaining distance from one another have emerged as ‘new normal’ in the social world of interaction.

Since the pandemic has locked its eyes upon the globe, world politics has taken an unfortunate drift. From the opportunities for leaders to abuse power during state of emergency (which is imposed in different states to limit the spread of novel Coronavirus) to the likelihood of rise of far-right nationalists to the emergence of ‘travel bubbles’ between states (such as New Zealand and Australia) and the increased chances of regionalism in post-pandemic world to the new terrorist strategies to gain support and many others, all are result of the pandemic’s impact on the political world, one way or the other. Since the end of WWII, the United States has taken the role of global leadership and after the Cold War, it became more prominent as it was the sole superpower of the world. Talking ideally, pandemics are perceived to bring up global cooperation but in the COVID-19 scenario it has started a whole new set of debates, sparkled nativism versus globalization and the sharp divide in global politics has drifted the focus from overcoming the global pandemic through global response to inward looking policies of leaders.

Covid-19 has impacted every sphere of life, be it social, political, health or economic. The pandemic itself being the result of a globalized world has affected globalization badly. It is the best illustration of the interrelation of politics and economics and how the steps in one sector impact the other in this interdependent, globalized world. Political actions such as restricting travel had drastic economic impacts especially to the countries whose economy is largely dependent on tourism, foreign investment etc. Similarly, economic actions such as limiting foreign products’ access had political implications in the form of sudden unemployment and downturn in living standards of people.

For the first time in history, oil prices became negative when its demand suddenly dropped when industries were shut down almost everywhere. Russia and Saudi Arabia’s oil clash which led to increased oil production by Saudi Arabia further complicated the situation. This unprecedented drop in oil demand and consequently its price would only help in the economic recovery of countries. Covid-19 has impacted three sectors badly. First of all, it affected production as global manufacturing has declined due to decrease in demand. Secondly, it has created supply chain and market disruption. Finally, lockdowns affected local businesses everywhere. Bad impact aside, pandemic has led to the change in demand of products. Instead of investment and foreign trade, states having strong medical and textiles industries have got the opportunity of increasing exports. This is because there are requirements of face masks everywhere to avoid contagion. Need for medical instruments have also increased such as ventilators in developing countries specially. 

The only positive impact of Coronavirus is that it fostered environmental cleanliness. It is said that it can avert a climate emergency but the fact is that, as soon as the lockdown will be eased and businesses will begin returning into functioning, economic growth and prosperity will be prioritized over sustainability and we might even witness, more than ever, carbon emissions into the atmosphere.

Novel coronavirus has brought new dynamics to the world’s politico-economic structure. While the world has the opportunity to come close for cooperation and consensus to fight it, we might witness increased regionalism in the post-pandemic world as a cautious measure and alternative where crisis management would be more cooperative and quick. There is a likelihood of the emergence of an international treaty or regime to ban bio-weapons. While the prevalence of political optimism is not assured in the post-pandemic world, we are likely to see the interdependent economic world, as before, to overcome the economic slump and revive the global economy. 

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The free trade vision and its fallacies: The case of the African Continental Free Trade Area

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The notion of free trade consists of the idea of a trade policy where no restrictions will be implemented on imports or exports in the respected countries that have signed such an agreement. Some economists argue that free trade is understood through the idea of the free market being forced through international trade. The African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) is a trade area that was founded in 2018, and it is the most ambiguous project in the history of the continent. This project has plenty of potential successes, as well as fallacies. Particular African nations are either in favor or against this project, and it is a matter of time before the world understands if this project will reflect the true notion behind the idea of a free trade policy.

The African Continental Free Trade Area: The European Union Vision in Africa?

The African Continental Free Trade Area was founded in 2018 in Kigali, Rwanda. It is believed to be the most prestigious project ever created on the continent. It was created by the African Continental Free Trade Agreement and it was signed by 44 countries. Some of the general objectives of this agreement include: The creation of a single economic market, the establishment of a liberalized market, the allowance of free movement of capital and people, diversification of the industrial development in the continent, e.t.c. In some ways, this project can be compared with the European Union and the vision that it represents for a single market and free movement of goods and people. However, due to the size and the geopolitical tensions of the African continent, there are a few obstacles to the achievement of this project. The European Union itself was a project that took more than half a century to be established in its current form, and still, we can see some problems that remain. With that being said, among the 27 member states, there seems to be more or less a coherent economic and political stability. In the case of the African Union, there are far more obstacles, ranging from huge economic differences, political and religious turmoils, and in general a neglected infrastructure; that might not be able to support a mammoth project like this. Any sort of optimism should be also approached with a realistic perspective when it comes to its implementation, which might not be happening anytime soon, certainly not before 2030.

The Relevance of the Free Trade Notion in Africa

It is important to remember that this project deals with the concept of free trade, and free trade itself is something that economists still argue about. Generally speaking, most economists seem to be in favor of free trade. There is an argument that supports the idea of free trade and any kind of reduction in government-induced restrictions on free trade which will be beneficial to economic growth and stability. On the other hand, some economists suggest that the policy of protectionism could be a more lucrative alternative for an economic policy. There is a suggestion that the liberalization of trade will result in an unequal distribution of losses and profit gains while economically dislocating a large number of workers in import-competing sectors.

In the case of the AfCFTA however, the opinion of Ha-Joon Chang, a South Korean economist, might be more relevant. He suggested that if there is going to be any kind of free trade liberalization in the African continent, some prior steps should be taken. For example, the improvement of the institutions in those developing African nations must be achieved to have sustainable economic growth and development. In addition, the idea of demanding from the developing nations to achieve institutional standards that we see in the developed nations such as the U.S or Great Britain, but have never before been achieved in those countries, will only hurt these nations since they might not need or even afford the implementation of these institutions that we see in the West. There is a valid point in the argument because the concept of the AfCFTA might indeed benefit some nations in Africa, but still, it will not develop to its full potential to benefit all 44 countries that have signed the agreement. This is because this project involves countries with different views and needs. Some of them see the AfCFTA as a blessing for the liberalization of the African economy, while other nations are more skeptical about it, thinking that this project will result in African states “biting off, more than they can chew”. This dichotomy is visually striking when we compare some African nations and examine the true reasons why they are in favor or against the AfCFTA.

The African Dichotomy

Rwanda is a small nation in East Africa, having at least 12.5 million people, with a total estimate of its GDP being close to $33.45 billion. A very impressive number, if someone considers the fact that in 1980 its GDP was barely $2.1 billion. It is also the nation that is strongly in favor of the ambitious free trade project in the continent. It is estimated that from 1994 until 2010, Rwanda’s economy grew an average of 6.6%. This is mostly based on the fact that the president of the country, Paul Kagame, led a strong campaign towards the liberalization of the country’s agricultural sector. His reforms allowed the producers to benefit from this liberalization boom while boosting productivity through capital investments. It is clear by now that any sort of project that aims to liberalize the economies of other African nations will be beneficial to Rwanda that aims, as President Paul Kagame mentioned before, to make Rwanda the “Singapore of Africa”.

However, some countries pose some key arguments that need to be addressed for the AfCFTA. There are concerns regarding the massive difference between populations in many African states, as well as the potential of the markets to sustain such a project. With that being said, there is still optimism from some experts that view this project as a win-win situation for Africa since it will allow a trade-led diversification away from Africa’s commodity dependence and focus towards industrial development. On the other hand, this optimism is being taken with a “pinch of salt” from certain African nations, like Nigeria. Nigeria is a nation of at least 205 million people with a total GDP of $1.087 trillion. Nigeria was one of the last nations to sign the agreement, but not before firmly opposing the deal. The strongest argument that Nigeria had against the deal, was the fact that Nigeria could do nothing to undermine the local Nigerian manufactures and entrepreneurs of the country. There was strong domestic opposition to regional trade liberalization and concerns about the government’s ability to implement it effectively. In the same line of thought, Togo’s Foreign Minister Robert Dussey did not hide his concerns. In an interview with Deutsche Welle, Mr. Dussey stressed the fact that many African countries will need to be firstly well-equipped with the right technical tools to meet the challenges of such an enormous project. He shared his views that some rich nations in the West are not so keen to see the potential industrialization of the African continent: “African development is foremost the responsibility of Africans. We have a problem with work for our youth. It is important that we have strong industries to have work for the young”, said Mr. Dussey for Deutsche Welle.

Can we safely say that the AfCFTA project complies with the economic policy of free trade? Theoretically, it does. The project has the potential to change the socio-economic status of all the countries involved. Even if some nations are more industrialized than others, and can take full advantage of the opportunities for manufactured goods, other nations that might not be so privileged can benefit by linking their economies into regional value chains. This can happen again theoretically if there is a reduction in trade costs and facilitating investments. However, one should not overlook the growing challenges of this project. It is not feasible to suggest a 90% tariff cut, a unified digital payments system, and an African trade observatory dashboard that the AU Commission promises in the next five years. For the simple reason that you cannot have this liberalized economic system when most of the African countries are suffering from socio-political instability. How can a system which in some ways is based on the European Union, work when there is such a striking inequality among African nations? There is a lack of industrial infrastructure to support such a project, and it will be more beneficial to address these regional problems before expanding in a global vision. One day Africa will reach its full potential, but not in the next five years and not in the next ten years. Such an agreement is a blessing, but it needs careful examination before being implemented; otherwise, we will talk about a disaster in the African continent that could potentially bring more inequality and regional tensions.

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Turning to sustainable global business: 5 things to know about the circular economy

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Due to the ever-increasing demands of the global economy, the resources of the planet are being used up at an alarming rate and waste and pollution are growing fast. The idea of a more sustainable “circular economy” is gaining traction, but what does this concept mean, and can it help save the planet?

1) Business as usual, the path to catastrophe

Unless we make some major adjustments to the way the planet is run, many observers believe that business as usual puts us on a path to catastrophe.

Around 90 per cent of global biodiversity loss and water stress (when the demand for water is greater than the available amount), and a significant proportion of the harmful emissions that are driving climate change, is caused by the way we use and process natural resources.

Over the past three decades, the amount of raw materials extracted from the earth, worldwide, has more than doubled. At the current rate of extraction, we’re on course to double the amount again, by 2060.

According to the International Resource Panel, a group of independent expert scientists brought together by the UN to examine the issue, this puts us in line for a three to six degree temperature increase, which would be deadly for much life on Earth. 

2) A circular economy means a fundamental change of direction

Whilst there is no universally agreed definition of a circular economy, the 2019 United Nations Environment Assembly, the UN’s flagship environment conference, described it as a model in which products and materials are “designed in such a way that they can be reused, remanufactured, recycled or recovered and thus maintained in the economy for as long as possible”.

In this scenario, fewer resources would be needed, less waste would be produced and, perhaps most importantly, the greenhouse gas emissions which are driving the climate crisis, would be prevented or reduced.

This goes much further than simply recycling: for the circular economy to happen,  the dominant economic model of “planned obsolescence” (buying, discarding and replacing products on a frequent basis) would have to be upended, businesses and consumers would need to value raw materials, from glass to metal to plastics and fibres, as resources to be valued, and products as things to be maintained and repaired, before they are replaced.

3) Turn trash into cash

Increasingly, in both the developed and the developing world, consumers are embracing the ideas behind the circular economy, and companies are realising that they can make money from it. “Making our economies circular offers a lifeline to decarbonise our economies”, says Olga Algayerova, the head of the UN Economic Commission for Europe, (UNECE), “and could lead to the creation of 1.8 million net jobs by 2040”.

In the US, for example, a demand for affordable, high-quality furniture, in a country where some 15 million tonnes of discarded furniture ends up in landfill every year, was the spur for the creation of Kaiyo, an online marketplace that makes it easier for furniture to be repaired and reused. The company is growing fast, and is part of a trend in the country towards a more effective use of resources, such as the car-sharing app Zipcar, and Rent the Runway, a rental service for designer clothing.

In Africa, there are many projects, large and small, which incorporate the principles of the circular economy by using existing resources in the most efficient way possible. One standout initiative is Gjenge Makers in Kenya. The company sells bricks for the construction industry, made entirely from waste. The young founder, Nzambi Matee, who has been awarded a UN Champion of the Earth award, says that she is literally turning trash into cash. The biggest problem she faces is how to keep up with demand: every day Gjenge Makers recycles some 500 kilos of waste, and can produces up to 1,500 plastic bricks every day.

4) Governments are beginning to step up

But, for the transition to take hold, governments need to be involved. Recently, major commitments have been made in some of the countries and regions responsible for significant resources use and waste. 
The US Government’s American Jobs Plan, for example, includes measures to retrofit energy-efficient homes, electrify the federal fleet of vehicles, including postal vans, and ending carbon pollution from power generation by 2035.

In the European Union, the EU’s new circular economy action plan, adopted in 2020, is one of the building blocks of the ambitious European Green Deal, which aims at making Europe the first climate-neutral continent.

And, in Africa, Rwanda, Nigeria and South Africa founded the African Circular Economy Alliance, which calls for the widespread adoption of the circular economy on the continent. The Alliance supports African leaders who champion the idea, and creates coalitions to implement pilot projects.

5) Squaring the circle?

However, there is still a long way to and there is even evidence that the world is going backwards: the 2021 Circularity Gap Report, produced annually by the Circle Economy thinktank, estimates that the global circularity rate (the proportion of recovered materials, as a percentage of overall materials used) stands at only 8.6 per cent, down from 9.1 per cent in 2018

So how can the world be made “rounder”? There are no easy answers, and no silver bullet, but Ms. Algayerova points to strong regulation as a big piece of the puzzle.

“I am proud that for the automotive sector, a UN regulation adopted at UNECE in 2013 requires 85 per cent of new vehicles’ mass to be reusable or recyclable. This binding regulation influences the design of around one quarter of all vehicles sold globally, some 23 million in 2019.”

“It’s a step in the right direction, but these kind of approaches need to be massively scaled up across all sectors”, she adds. “Shifting to the circular economy is good for business, citizens and nature, and must be at the heart of a sustainable recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic.”

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