Published: 00:56, July 13, 2022 | Updated: 17:53, March 22, 2023
PDF View
Belt and Road Initiative opens up African markets that the SAR should seize
By Amr Elhenawy

On July 1, delivering the keynote address at the 25th anniversary celebrations, President Xi Jinping spoke of Hong Kong “as an important window and bridge connecting the Chinese mainland with the world”.

He confirmed that the central authorities would fully support Hong Kong “in developing more extensive and closer exchanges and cooperation with the world”. He singled out as a notable strength of Hong Kong that it is “enjoying the backing of the motherland while staying connected with the world”.

Of course, China already has extensive connections with the world, and President Xi was urging Hong Kong to coordinate with them: In his address at the welcome dinner on June 30, speaking of national development strategies, he promised to support Hong Kong “in leveraging its strengths and role in advancing the Belt and Road Initiative”.

An overview of Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) projects and loans shows that nearly all African countries — 49 of the continent’s 54 — have signed memorandums of understanding with China. Africa has seen more major BRI flagship projects than any other continent.

He (President Xi) confirmed that the central authorities would fully support Hong Kong “in developing more extensive and closer exchanges and cooperation with the world”. He singled out as a notable strength of Hong Kong that it is “enjoying the backing of the motherland while staying connected with the world”

As long ago as 2013, President Xi vowed to intensify ties with Africa. In 2018, he hosted the Beijing Summit of the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation. And in 2021, he set out a blueprint for the development of China-Africa relations and committed to nine cooperative programs. BRI projects are a vital part of the presidential vision for ties with Africa.

Among the most visible African BRI mega-projects is Egypt’s new administrative capital, under construction 28 miles (45 kilometers) east of Cairo, halfway to the seaport of Suez, and involving many Chinese mainland firms. A joint project between Egypt and China is developing the Suez Canal Economic Zone as an industrial, trade, and logistics center.

Egypt is part of China’s grand plan for the Maritime Silk Road, and so are the coastal countries of East Africa. Thus, BRI projects stretch all the way from Suez to Djibouti on the Horn of Africa, to all the major ports of the East African coast.

The coastal projects also involve infrastructure linking them to Africa’s domestic markets. For example, in Kenya, Chinese firms have built a 300-mile railway from Mombasa to Nairobi. The modern track has reduced travel time between the port and the capital from 12 to only 4.5 hours. An East African Railway Master Plan envisions rejuvenating the railways serving Tanzania, Kenya, and Uganda, and adding railways to serve Rwanda and Burundi: When the system is complete, transportation times and costs between major coastal ports and the interior will be improved, and the economic development of the whole region will be enhanced.

It is not only East African countries that have experienced the impact of BRI initiatives. Central African countries have also seen massive infrastructure and economic development projects. For example, President Xi visited Rwanda in 2018 and signed agreements with President Paul Kagame in Kigali. In May of this year, construction began on the Nyaborongo II Hydropower Plant. By 2027, this 43.5-megawatt facility will be providing clean energy to Rwanda’s national grid.

In West Africa, also, BRI projects are underway. For example, in Ghana in 2019, a Chinese delegation signed agreements to finance $2 billion for development of railroad and bridge networks and released an initial $649 million for road construction projects.

Similar major infrastructure projects are powering development across Africa, and China is also supporting the modernization of the continent’s agriculture and education sectors.

Some critics have condemned BRI as so-called “debt-trap diplomacy”, in which opaque loan terms lead to unsustainable debt. Others have claimed that BRI has failed to produce economic benefits for African countries. And yet others, remembering Europe’s “Scramble for Africa”, assert that BRI is “neocolonialism”.

Objective studies by Western scholars, however, have found that Chinese loans are not major contributors to African debt distress. Positive economic effects have been cataloged for most African countries; and research has suggested that BRI projects have important multiplier and spillover effects that are producing more equal distribution of economic activity. Finally, it should be remembered that European colonialism was based on military occupation and the exploitation of a country’s whole economy for the benefit of the imperial power: China is guilty of no such “colonialist” actions.

BRI’s flagship enterprises in Africa are an impressive exercise of China’s growing “soft power,” demonstrating the success of its economy and its system of government. They are also a well-placed strategic bet on the continent’s economic future

In fact, BRI’s flagship enterprises in Africa are an impressive exercise of China’s growing “soft power”, demonstrating the success of its economy and its system of government. They are also a well-placed strategic bet on the continent’s economic future. Africa, the second-largest continent in terms of land mass, is clearly destined to become the world’s largest market.

Long-term demographic projections of population growth — such as the United Nations’ estimate that Africa will be home to more than 4 billion people by 2100 — need to be viewed skeptically. We can be very confident, however, in the figures for 2030, only eight years away. By that date, the population of China is projected to be 1.464 billion and India’s to be 1.503 billion. In 2030, Africa’s population, at 1.68 billion, will not only be greater but growing more rapidly.

BRI projects recognize the economic potential of Africa and aim to encourage its development of a middle class. They involve not only industrial and commercial infrastructure, but also the modernization of agriculture and education and other aids to social and economic development.

One result is already clear: BRI has opened up African markets for Chinese businesses.

Today, Hong Kong has the opportunity to follow the mainland’s African BRI projects. It can help build new bridges and open new windows to that fast-growing continent. And that could prove to be this century’s greatest economic opportunity.

The author is the Consul General of Egypt to Hong Kong SAR and Macao SAR.

The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.