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The Belt and Road in Africa

Mar 20, 2019
  • Robert I. Rotberg

    Founding Director of Program on Intrastate Conflict, Harvard Kennedy School

China’s Belt and Road Initiative reaches to the coasts of northeastern Africa and to Djibouti and Ethiopia, echoing China’s voyages during the Ming imperial times. It holds strategic promise for China and positive developmental potential for parts of Africa that today have limited resources and, were it not for the Belt and Road Initiative, particularly poor prospects for growth. China’s controversial thrust into the Horn of Africa is thus being watched for mixed messages by African nations and by other great powers.

China has financed the vital rail line that connects landlocked Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital to Djibouti (which may now be somewhat redundant because of last year’s sudden brokerage of peace between Eritrea and Ethiopia, with the old rail connection to Massawa on the Red Sea now reopened). China also constructed a 63-mile long pipeline to bring fresh water to desperately desiccated Djibouti, one of the hottest and lowest places on earth. It wants to mediate the long-standing border dispute between Djibouti and neighboring Eritrea. It has also participated for many years in anti-piracy patrols in the nearby Gulf of Aden.

But as important as these endeavors may be, the linchpin of China’s Belt and Road Initiative in Africa is its increasing prominence in Djibouti itself, a country situated at the southern entrance to the key shipping routes of the Red Sea. Just as France and the United States have military bases in Djibouti, so does China. Japan is opening a base there, too.

Djibouti is China’s most forward security outpost. China Merchants Port Holdings, a subsidiary of the state-owned China Merchants Group, now also effectively manages Djibouti’s main container terminal, after ousting a major Dubai ports operator that had previously signed a long-term contract. (The contract is being contested in a court in Hong Kong after Dubai’s contract rights were upheld in a special tribunal and then in Britain’s High Court). China has also built the adjacent multipurpose port, giving it logistical, and therefore strategic, hegemony in Djibouti. Additionally, China constructed Djibouti’s International Free Trade Zone (China has also opened similar trade zones in Ethiopia, Nigeria, Rwanda, and Zambia. Turkey has established a rival trade zone in Djibouti.).

Djibouti’s authoritarian government, run since 1999 by President Ismail Omar Guelleh, has clearly welcomed China’s increasing involvement in Djibouti. In a resource-limited Somali nation, China’s loans to Djibouti for construction projects, as well as the American and French, and now Japanese, base payments, are the tiny nation’s main sources of revenue. President Guelleh’s regime has doubled its economic performance in the last five years, raising GDP per capita to more than $1800. Ethiopia’s comparable figure is only $767. China has also made direct payments to President Guelleh and his key associates to cement their mutually beneficial relationship.

More dangerous for President Guelleh and Djibouti’s future is Djibouti’s heavy debt to China. On a per capita basis, Djibouti is more in debt to China than any other country in the world. Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Laos, the Maldives, Mongolia, Pakistan, and Montenegro compete for this dubious honor, with Sri Lanka having already given a new Chinese-constructed port back to China in exchange for debts that could not be serviced. In Africa, the other two most indebted countries to China are the Republic of Congo (Brazzaville) and Zambia. But Kenyans are also concerned that their country may be unable to service debt repayments for the standard gauge railway that China has constructed between Mombasa and Nairobi – a further Belt and Road endeavor.

Analysts worry that Djibouti may generate insufficient revenues to pay China, but President Guelleh claims not be worried. China, he gambles, needs Djibouti to anchor its farthest point from Beijing on the Belt and Road, especially its maritime component.

That seems likely, especially since, for strategic purposes, China wants to be a power in or near Africa, at a choke point for shipping in the Suez Canal, adjacent to the warring Arabian Peninsula, and near enough to Iran to keep an eye on that troubled oil-exporting region. Further, holding Djibouti makes it relatively easy for China to fill in the intervening gaps in the Belt and Road back toward Pakistan and Myanmar.

Ultimately, China is positioning itself so that pivots toward Egypt, Tanzania, Mozambique, or even South Africa are supremely possible from a Djiboutian outpost on the far-flung Belt and Road. Chinese firms have also been bidding for major refinery contracts in distant Uganda.

Given its base in Djibouti and its many other initiatives throughout the whole of Africa, China as a nation, Chinese firms, and Chinese nationals are already contributing to Africa’s development in ways that could not have been imagined a mere decade ago. Indeed, Africa and Africans can only prosper now if China itself continues to grow economically, and continues to expand upon the Belt and Road Initiative in Africa.

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