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The Centre for China Studies (CCS) is an independent research think tank focused on the study of China, her phenomenal rise and important engagement with Africa.

Speech delivered at the Thematic Forum on Think Tank Exchange of the 3rd Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation held in Beijing, China on October 17th and 18th, 2023.

By Charles Onunaiju

The Silk Road economic belt and the “21st century maritime silk road” was launched in 2013 during Chinese president Xi Jinping’s speech to the audience at Nazarbayer University in Kazakhstan and to the Peoples representative council (parliament) in Indonesia the framework later to be identified as Belt and Road Initiative attracted considerable response from the rest of the world. It essentially integrates the historical symbolism of the ancient silk road with the requirements of the contemporary times. It gives greater substance to the trend of globalization and humanizes its prospects, by giving greater scope to broad participation and offering the practical building block of a network of connectivity necessary to an integrated and inclusive global order.

Globalization as inevitable trend of the human history took shape with global capital and extensive financializaion but in the sense was narrow and have few stakeholders both among nations and peoples. Despite the reality of globalization, it has a deficit of inclusion and the opportunities of its earlier stage were narrowed to the countries with the basic wherewithal to engage it. The historic lacuna or deficit of the earlier stage shaped the thinking in outlining the framework of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) as a broader and more inclusive mechanism of international cooperation.

At the first international conference of Belt and Road held in Beijing in 2017, president Xi Jinping pointed out that “mankind has reached an age of great progress, great transformation and profound change. In this increasingly multipolar, economically globalized, digitized and cultural diversified world, the trend toward peace and development has become stronger, and reform and innovation are gaining momentum. “And in terms of reality” he continued: “we find ourselves in a world fraught with challenges. Global economic growth requires new drivers, development needs to be more inclusive and a balanced and the gaps between rich and poor need to be narrowed” … and deficits in the spheres of peace, development and governance have posed daunting challenges to humanity”.

Despite the noticeable short falls of the earlier globalization, it is certainly an unstoppable trend and what it needs to work for all is the requirement for new drives’ the overwhelming convergence of all human desires for peace, development and prosperity cannot happen on its own, thoughts have to be expended on the crucial mechanics and practical actions have to be tailored to generate the necessary momentum for its realization. To the question of the great dilemma facing humanity, the compelling universal desire for shared development and the critical deficit of the vital platforms and practical tools to nurture and realize the desires.

The Belt and Road Initiative is a major contribution of Chinese wisdom to engage the challenge and it proceeded from the point of offering and generating public goods that gives scope to sustainable and inclusive development.

As president Xi Jinping point out at the first international forum of the belt and road initiative that “we should build the Belt and Road into a road of prosperity” and aptly observed that “development holds the master key to solving all problems. In pursuing the Belt and Road Initiative we should focus on fundamental issue of development, release the growth potentials of participating countries, achieve economic integration and interconnected development. If there is any region in the world where there’s graphic insight to the challenge of the contemporary times is apt and even more relevant, it is Africa.

It is therefore no surprise that Africa is the region in the world with the largest number of countries that are partners to the BRI construction. The key point in the struggle for the elimination of colonial domination in Africa was in the main to foster regional integration though infrastructure connectivity. But for many decades after African states gained independence from colonial rule, the hope and dream of integration could not accomplished due to obvious deficit of funding and the continuous distortion of Africa socio economic and political landscape due to the interference of former western colonial powers.

The impact of the Belt and road initiative in closing the historic gap of Africa infrastructure has been considerably revolutionary within and between states in Africa infrastructure construction under the BRI have accelerated at historic sped. Nigeria is the largest country in the region has been particularly hampered with the dearth of infrastructure. However, recently the country inaugurated its first deep sea port built in a record time of three years under the BRI partnership. The Lekki deep sea port is a modern port with the state of the art facility and is estimated to provide more 200,000 jobs and would make Nigeria a maritime hub in the sub region. The triple principle of reciprocity in consultation, construction and benefit sharing as embodied in the implementation of BRI have aligned to Africa long desire for host-driven of international partnership projects in the region BRI’S inclusivity in engaging with the host countries as compared to the unilateral dictates of the west in identifying the projects is by itself a clear and plausible rebuttal to the repeated malice in vilifying the BRI as a “debt trap”.

Much of the point of pan Africanism or the desire for the pride in the continental size and diversity, but these characteristics have also acted as hindrance to economic development. Comprised of a number of small landlocked countries with no access to ports, transporting commodities between countries has been a major barrier to intra-regional and international trade. This is Mainly due to a lack of streamlined and efficient transport routes within the continent resulting into high cost from deficit of basic infrastructure.

As a result of poor and inadequate infrastructure, transportation costing Africa are 50 to 175% higher than in most part of the world. Africa’s infrastructure deficit suppresses regional and international trade, leading to further isolation of Africa from the global value chains and s n 2021, Africa’s exports and imports are less than3% of global trade volume. Therefore, it is no exaggeration that investment in highway and railway infrastructure, telecommunication infrastructure and power generation is critical to the alleviation of integration bottlenecks in Africa.

There have been ambitious plans to link the different parts of the region but the implementation has been vitiated with numerous challenges but the most notable of those have been financing and funding. The famous “Lagos Plan of action’ crafted in 1980 at the special summit of African heads of state and government provided detailed road map to regional connectivity and industrialization but suffered from western political intimidation and maneuver along with paucity of funding to carry through.

However, since 2000, China has played a critical role in supporting Africa to meet some of its infrastructure financing needs. China funds one in five infrastructure projects and constructs one in three projects in Africa. And Africa and China’s growing bonds – a result of China’s role as the key infrastructure financer through the BRI can be seen from the perspective of economic complementarity. the 21st century trajectories of China-Africa cooperation were however, underwritten by political goodwill and mutual understanding cultivate in the long years of mutual support in the anti-colonial and anti-imperialist struggles. But the logic of the accelerated trajectory in contemporary cooperation within the framework of forum on China Africa cooperation and the mechanism of the Belt and Road Initiative are derived from the infrastructural deficit and gaps that are the stark challenge of Africa’s development ambitions. China’s prolific construction firms are some of the largest in the world and are very competitive, with the potential to undertake projects critical to infrastructure development.

Chain maritime Silk Road is expected to reach Africa through the Mombasa port in Kenya and extend inland along the Mombassa-Nairobi railway line. The sea route will also link the Suez Canal to Greece. In east Africa the construction of railways connecting the interlands to the coastal ports is of critical essence. The main projects of east Africa master plan include the Djibouti- Addis railway. The 759km Djibouti-Addis line has educed travel time from 3 days by rod to 12 hours by railway. The railway would in due course chalk out 5,000km to connect South Sudan, Kenya and Sudan while Djibouti expects greater connectivity between the red sea and the Atlantic Ocean through a rail network. In addition, Chinese owned companies in Ethiopia’s special economic is growing with Europe been the key market for the manufactured goods from these zones. The BRI is the critical enabler of this important role in the transportation of products from Ethiopia to Europe and other markets as well as developing the manufacturing economy

Despite that the BRI earlier emphasized the east Africa in regards to the original maritime Silk Road over 2000 years ago, a great focus on the west and central Africa has been underway. China’s significance in the development of trans-regional railway and highway systems in west Africa Is also evident, which is in line with the BRI’s vison of connectivity. For instance, the plan to upgrade the 1,228km existing railway line between Bamako in Mali and Dakar in Senegal at the cost 2.2 billion USD underway.

China has played a key role in financing the railway upgrade through 1.24 billion USD loan with Senegal, payable at 2% annually in 30 years and a 1.49 billion USD agreement between China railway construction corporation and Mali. The project will increase trade through transportation of goods and form an important new link between the two countries and facilitate Mali’s access to the sea and would considerably benefit Mali’s gold mining sector. And more importantly, through collaboration with China, the 4,500km tran-sahelian highway No 5 is now complete and the lines runs from Dakar in Senegal to N’Djamena in Chad. TAH5 is part of trans-Africa highway, which is a 60,000km network of a highway crossing the continent an elaborated by the united Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA) in 1971 and further integrated into Lagos Plan of Action in 1980.

In addition to providing an alternative seamless route from Senegal to Chad, the highway will also allow TAH5 countries to tap into the market in the west and central Africa, promoting regional trade and integration. The launch of Africa Continental Free Trade Area AFCFTA unlike its predecessor, the Africa common market launched towards the end of the last century would have a far considerable chance to succeed and thrive partly on account of the current availability of critical infrastructures through the continent’s engagement with the BRI process.

Despite the overall positive outlook on domestic integration and regional connectivity spurred China-Africa BRI partnership, critics often claim that African Investment projects, Chia aims to facilitate easy mineral extraction and market access for Chinese markets. But the facts are different as such assertions as China’s infrastructural projects as exploitative is rather too simplistic. Upon closer examination at the main investors in Africa mining sector, China is not among the top investors. The top three investors were the United States at 66%, the UK at 55% and France at 47%. China was not a distant 28%. Nevertheless, China leads in Africa’s total infrastructural investment at 27% and manufacturing at 13%

In conclusion, ten tears since the BRI was launched, it has shattered the myth fostered by Washington and Brussels that it was a geo-political ploy entraps developing countries into debt. Africa, the region with the most obvious enthusiasm for the BRI has significantly transformed and bringing to reality, the Africa dream of renaissance through integration and build regional economy of scale. Even with the outbreak of the covid-19 pandemic and its destabilizing effects, the region is back on the cruise and whatever might be its existential challenge of political and social problems, President Xi Jinping axiomatic statement that “Development is the master key that open all doors” to resolve all issues remains apt and reflect Africa’s reality and its emerging trajectories

Categories: Conference / Forum

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