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For African Nations, China's One Belt, One Road Means More of the Same

Beijing's latest infrastructure bid is just a repackaging of traditional foreign policy.
Chinese President Xi Jinping.

Chinese President Xi Jinping.

This week, playing to mixed reviews, China closed a forum on its so-called One Belt, One Road scheme—one that will inject billions of dollars in international transportation infrastructure: Mainly railways and roads stretching across Asia, the Middle East, Europe, and Africa, designed to boost commerce.

The initiative, which ostensibly aims to revive Silk Road trade routes, sounds on its face like a monumental undertaking. Analysts warn that it actually amounts to a thinly veiled attempt to relieve pressure on China's overcapacity construction sector (the nation's infamous ghost towns are a prominent emblem of this) while furthering its diplomatic and commercial footprint abroad.

For many analysts, the project amounts mostly to a show of wealth.

"My impression of One Belt, One Road is that it indicates the Xi government has high international ambitions and a lot of cash to work with," says Denny Roy, a senior fellow at the Honolulu-based East-West Center think tank.

What's clear is that China has no intent to reinvent the wheel in its foreign policy and commerce with One Belt, One Road; what's less clear is whether that's by mistake or design.

With Washington experiencing growing turbulence over allegations that President Donald Trump continues to collude with Russian counterparts to the detriment of national security in the United States, China has actively tried to position itself as the globe's new rational actor. Chinese President Xi Jinping said at the forum that the only way for China to realize the development initiatives promised by One Belt, One Road is in an environmental of global stability, in an apparent retort to several moments in Trump's foundling presidency where its appeared he was on the warpath.

"Xi is gleefully taking advantage of the Trump retrenchment to promote Chinese global leadership as a benefit to other countries," Roy says. "The question is whether the governments of the world will accept that Chinese leadership is in their own national interest, especially when they become more aware of the possible downsides of taking Chinese money."

While China holds firm to its status quo abroad, its international partners are calling for change.

Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta, who attended the forum on the initiative in Beijing, strongly urged China to shift its traditional practices in Africa; no longer would a model of natural resources in exchange for Chinese-built infrastructure work for his country, he told the Financial Times ahead of the summit.

"Xi is gleefully taking advantage of the Trump retrenchment to promote Chinese global leadership as a benefit to other countries."

But there were no signs of change on the horizon at the forum, where Beijing reportedly championed the near completion of one of the infrastructural arteries behind One Belt, One Road: a more than $3 billion Standard Gauge Railway in Kenya running from the coastal city of Mombasa to the capital Nairobi—Part of the One Belt, One Road project is to lay the physical infrastructure for greater connectivity and therefore commerce with China in countries where the Silk Road's land and maritime routes once ran.

The railway comes at a huge cost to Kenya, even though it was 90 percent financed by Beijing. "It's a massive risk, which they hope will pay off," a CNN segment on the project said of the project that costs 6 percent of the country's gross domestic product.

China—as an Eastern power whose economy now rivals that of the U.S.—has long sought to champion itself as a Global South economic success story. Infrastructural development was key to China's rapid-fire economic growth in the late 1970s and the '80s; to become the world's factory that it is today, China needed roads to bring goods to port for international shipment.

The implicit understanding in China's involvement in Africa, Latin America, and elsewhere is that China's experience offers a way forward for upwardly mobile African countries.

But it remains uncertain whether nations across Africa not already developing on their own terms can or even want to recreate that China model. In the 1970s and '80s, China had a massive population of easily exploited workers on which to build its economic success. The People's Republic continues to struggle with labor rights insofar as its advancements have done little to bolster rule of law and basic civil liberties. Many African nations—despite grappling with dictatorship—have unions or other labor organizations and cultures of labor rights that protect people from the human rights violations necessary for such a pliable workforce to exist; China, for its parts, has a single government-sponsored labor union, even now.

One prominent project illustrates some of the problems with China's traditional involvement in the continent: In the North African nation of Algeria in 2007, Chinese state-owned companies launched construction on the East-West Highway, the longest in Africa, amid Beijing's attempts to make inroads into the Algerian natural gas and oils markets. While the Chinese companies on the project did hire local Algerian construction workers, one company neglected to pay them for months, and the workers left the project—some even left town in search of other employment—as Algeria's powerful unions engaged in a bid to win them back their wages. Now, parts of the completed highway have reportedly crumbled, and several business entities involved in the project face litigation over allegations of bribes and other misappropriations of funds in the project.

Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta.

Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta.

Infrastructure is key to growing an economy. People need to get to work, preferably by fast-moving mechanical transport, to develop products to take on roads to airports and harbors for international shipment. Kenyatta did tell the Financial Times that infrastructure is key to Kenya's development, and reportedly secured over $200 million in assistance—largely for infrastructure projects—in Beijing last weekend. But the question remains: Are these kinds of infrastructure projects the best contribution China can make to the continent's development now? Or is Africa, once again, getting a raw deal for its abundant—but, ultimately, finite—raw resources?

China has long sought to position itself in opposition to the U.S. as an Eastern alternative to Western hegemons. Where Washington has often dealt in toxic aid to struggling African counterparts, China does business without political preconditions—business that leaves in its wake new roads and other much-needed infrastructure.

"Essentially China sees itself as having taken the mantle of 'globalization' from the U.S. and thus naturally the [One Belt, One Road] initiative announces [China] as the preeminent global promotor of globalization—with obviously Chinese characteristics, A.K.A. free markets, without political freedom," says Sebastian Spio-Garbrah, an economic development consultant at Damina Advisors.

But in reality, China in its African partnerships has thus far lined the coffers of some of Africa's most despotic regimes, its projects have often found themselves entrenched in accusations of corruption and other malfeasance and it continues to import workers from China as opposed to hiring locally.

It is important to keep in mind: Despite a socialist-with-Chinese-characteristics ethic, Beijing's mission is not to better Africa—not that that was ever the case for any international actor.

"China continues to fundamentally treat its engagement in Africa in an economic mercantilist way, rather than in a strategic way," Spio-Garbrah says, "I.E. what do we need from Africa and how can we get it."