There’s one major pitfall for African countries along China’s new Silk Road

Under construction.
Under construction.
Image: Reuters/Noor Khamis
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China’s campaign to build a massive network of land and sea links connecting Asia, Europe, the Middle East, and Africa is expected to benefit the African countries along the route. Chinese officials pledged an extra $113 billion in funding for the project at a summit in Beijing over the last two days. In total, China will spend as much as $3 trillion on roads, ports, and other updates to infrastructure in more than 60 countries that make up the “One Belt, One Road.”

China’s new Silk Road.
China’s new Silk Road.
Image: Reuters

China has already financed and built a $4 billion railway between Djibouti to Addis Ababa, the continent’s first transnational electric railway. In Kenya, a Chinese firm has built a new railway connecting Nairobi to the country’s port city of Mombasa. Eventually it will reach Uganda, Rwanda, and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

There’s one drawback to the project observers are calling China’s Marshall Plan. The One Belt One Road (OBOR) initiative, marketed as a modern-day recreation of the ancient Silk Road trading route, is about gaining access to new markets for Chinese goods. (Soft power and finding work for Chinese construction companies are important factors too.)

In this way, OBOR is similar to Britain’s colonial trade routes, used to take natural resources from its outposts as well as ship finished goods back to its colonial subjects, Eric Olander and Cobus van Staden at the China Africa podcast have observed.

African countries are already flooded with Chinese products. Chinese exports to African countries reached $103 billion in 2015, a figure that is likely much higher because of underreporting and smuggled goods. African countries are exporting far less to China than they’re importing. After years of falling commodity prices, now only 10 out of 53 sub-Saharan African countries have a trade surplus with China, according to 2015 data.

Kenya’s president Uhuru Kenyatta, one of only two African leaders invited to China’s One Belt One Road forum in Beijing this week, recently called on China to balance its trade with African countries.

In an interview (paywall) with the Financial Times, Kenyatta said that if Beijing’s ”win-win strategy is going to work, it must mean that, just as Africa opens up to China, China must also open up to Africa.”