This article touches on the early influence of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) on Africa. A brief reference to the original silk route and the basic features of the modern-day equivalent are presented as an overview. An examination of the geopolitical and geo-economical dimensions of the BRI points to China’s pursuit of global power status. In Africa, the BRI focuses on the creation of infrastructure and a business marketplace to facilitate the free flow of goods and products between China and Africa. Theoretical perspectives in the field of International Relations (IR) provide an analytical explanation to the question: Is the BRI based on the liberal school in IR which promotes cooperation between countries for mutual economic benefit or is it based on the realist school in IR which emphasises the expansion of global political power? The analysis reveals that both schools of thought play a role in explaining China’s BRI ambitions.
The early influence of the BRI on Africa is the main part of the article. At this stage it is too early to draw any significant conclusions about the influence of the BRI on Africa; however, the position of President Xi Jinping, the value of the different regions, and the challenges and criticism facing the BRI are examined. The main finding is that the BRI gives rise to the expansion of China’s geopolitical and geo-economical power in Africa.
An historical overview of the BRI shows that China originally established a silk route in the Han dynasty (206 BC) to promote trading with countries in Central Asia. The BRI as the modern-day equivalent was adopted by the Chinese government in 2013 as a global infrastructure development strategy. The aim is to promote trade between China and Africa and facilitate cooperation in multilateral organisations and discussion forums, such as the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC). The initiative will connect the global community through investments, including connectivity, policy coordination, trade facilitation, infrastructure, financial integration, and people-to-people exchanges. During official visits to Indonesia and Kazakhstan President Xi Jinping announced the strategy and in 2017 it was incorporated into the Constitution of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). The overland routes for road and rail transportation are referred to as the Belt, whereas transportation by sea is referred to as the Road. Some international observers view the initiative as a plan for Chinese world domination through a China-centred global trading network. The project has a target completion date of 2049, which coincides with the 110th anniversary of the PRC.
China desires to expand its influence across the globe through this very ambitious project. Indeed, the project will enhance China’s economic and strategic influence and promote its status as an international role-player. By increasing cooperation with interested countries, China wishes to strengthen its political and economic power. Moreover, the initiative will help to satisfy China’s domestic economic needs and bring wealth and prosperity to the Chinese people. The BRI is also a means to counter American power in the countries along the routes and to convince the world that China desires peace and development.
From the perspectives of IR theory, the BRI shows elements of liberalism and realism. The liberal perspective portrays China as a peaceful and benevolent role-player, where countries along the routes cooperate to achieve mutually beneficial results. The realist perspective portrays China as pursuing power through aggressive and self-interested means. The BRI shows signs of China’s effort to expand power; for example, prosperity creation in countries along the routes through the provision of financial, political, and cultural resources. While the BRI is essentially a platform to advance international cooperation and common benefits for all cooperating countries, it also provides an opportunity for China to expand power and pursue world economic dominance. Access to international markets is strengthened through the increase of power (offensive realism), while national interests are increased through security (defensive realism).
Following the above background, the main focus of the article is to examine the early influence of the BRI on Africa. China and Africa have a friendship that stretches back many decades. Historically, certain parts of Africa were important trading centres on the maritime route, creating economic growth, social stability, and cultural progress. President Xi Jinping at the last FOCAC Summit in 2018 emphasised the collaboration needed between Africa and China to achieve a common destiny and mutually shared benefits. The BRI has specific implications for the regions of Africa and that is pointed out in this section. Firstly, the countries in East Africa (Djibouti, Ethiopia, Kenya, Ruanda, Uganda, and Tanzania) are strategically important on the maritime route. These countries have ports and are viewed as the gateways to East Africa. Secondly, Egypt, Algiers and Morocco as Northern African countries are located next to the Mediterranean Sea and serve as important hubs to connect China with Europe through the Suez Canal. Thirdly, the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC) is in cooperation with the BRI to implement its industrialisation strategy. Infrastructure development is important for both groups to place Africa on the path of progress.
Apart from all the success stories, there are many challenges. Firstly, the capacity of African countries to effect stable economic growth needs to be improved. Regional conflicts, weak economic drivers, limited national capacity, and a lack of talent place a damper on the execution of the initiative. Secondly, the business environment in Africa needs to be improved, by creating more jobs and acquiring capital for BRI investment projects. In the context of the many obstacles China faces with the BRI, it is also necessary to look at the critique and challenges from the African side. China’s self-interested economic ambitions receive the scrutiny of western observers. For example, the inability of African countries to pay back infrastructure development debt, the so-called debt-trap, is a big discussion point. The implication is that African countries become economically dependent on China, where large amounts of money are invested in economic development in exchange for the procurement of valuable natural resources.
Moreover, the BRI has the potential to cause conflict between the United States and China because of their different approaches to economic development and the deliberate attempt by China to create a sphere of influence in Africa. The perception of western analysts is that China’s international behaviour is becoming more assertive and the BRI is one phase in its arsenal of diplomatic instruments to achieve world economic dominance. However, the Chinese viewpoint is that the BRI carries the economic interests of African countries at heart and will create a win-win situation through mutual cooperation.
The findings reveal that the BRI has the potential to develop Africa as an emerging market, but China’s opaqueness and Africa’s financial debt are burdens in the effective management and coordination of the initiative. Furthermore, Africa is part of China’s geopolitical and geo-economic ambitions: geopolitically, because China desires to increase its political power in the BRI regions and geo-economically, because China desires to benefit economically from trading with cooperative countries. In terms of the last statement, the geo-economic nature of the BRI refers to China’s use of economic instruments to pursue geopolitical goals. This includes building infrastructure and opening trade routes to earn the reputation of an international superpower.
Keywords: Belt and Road Initiative; BRI’s early influence on Africa; geopolitics and geo-economics of the BRI; International Relations perspectives on the BRI; Sino-African relations