Silk Road to the Sahel: African ambitions in China’s Belt and Road Initiative

08/25/2018

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Yunnan Chen | China Africa Research Initiative

BILLED AS A “MARSHALL PLAN” FOR THE EURASIAN CONTINENT, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) has become a centrepiece of China’s foreign economic policy under President Xi Jinping. While the initiative has primarily focused on the Eurasian continent, the BRI also has significant implications for African development and regional integration, accelerating existing infrastructure and industrial cooperation. These projects tie into Africa’s national infrastructure plans and regional development strategies, such as the African Union’s Agenda 2063. However, the rapid growth of infrastructure lending the BRI proposes also poses latent risks for African economies in terms of their project impacts, sustainability, and debt burdens. THE BELT AND ROAD IN CONTEXT THE CURRENT BRI COMPRISES TWO CORRIDORS, BOTH OF WHICH connect greater China to the European continent. The ‘Silk Road Economic Belt’ encompasses the greater Eurasian landmass, connecting Western China via Central Asia and the Middle East, to Eastern Europe. The ‘21st century Maritime Silk Road’ links a network of ports and maritime infrastructure from China’s Eastern seaboard with South and Southeast Asia, East Africa, and northward to the Mediterranean. For East and North Africa, this includes new maritime and transport infrastructure projects, including key segments of cross-border railway networks, new special economic zones (SEZs), and industrial estates.

Driven partially by economic transition at home, the BRI serves a range of domestic economic goals and geostrategic aims. The Eurasian ‘Belt’ extends the scope of Beijing’s ‘Go West’ (xibukaifa) policy from the mid-2000s, with the aim of developing its peripheral western provinces through promoting trade with land neighbors in Central Asia, in the same way that globalization enriched China’s eastern coast. BRI projects also contribute to the internationalisation of Chinese infrastructure firms and directly benefit Chinese goods and exports—useful in offshoring excess capacity. New corridors present strategic benefits for resource security, by diversifying transport routes. These trends occur as China’s leadership shows increasing concern for, and willingness to  act upon, perceived security interests, both in confronting extremism at home, and in projecting its capabilities abroad. Sixty-five countries have been designated as part of the BRI, though the initiative’s full scope remains vague—to date, there is no comprehensive public list of projects. Indeed, the vagueness of its boundaries is detailed in official discourse as proof of its inclusivity. The scope of the initiative continues to expand with Latin American leaders having also been involved in the 2017 BRI summit, and recent announcements of a ‘polar silk road’ suggest further development of an arctic trade route between China and Europe. The prioritization of the BRI in China’s foreign and economic policy has required mobilizing state actors involved in foreign aid and loan finance.

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