China’s Belt and Road Initiative and Africa – An Interview with Paul Nantulya

By Dennis Matanda
Editor-in-Chief | The Habari Network – 13 May 2019

This week world leaders gather in Beijing to attend the 2nd Belt and Road Summit. The Habari Network’s featured guest, Paul Nantulya, discusses China’s ambitious global plan in this wide-ranging interview. He is a Research Associate at the Africa Center for Strategic Studies and a specialist in Chinese foreign policy and China-Afro-Asia engagements.

Dennis Matanda: Paul, this is a timely moment to talk about the Belt and Road Initiative, so thanks for joining us.

Paul Nantulya: My pleasure. The Belt and Road is indeed getting intense global attention. In February, Italy became the first G7 member to join it. Ahead of the upcoming Forum in April, China’s foreign ministry is hosting over 30 African and Asian journalists on a 10-month fellowship on reporting on the Belt and Road. In September, Hong Kong will host its 4th Belt and Road Summit for political and business leaders.

DM: A packed schedule indeed. So what is the Belt and Road Initiative?

PN: The Chinese use the more expansive term, yī dai yī lu, 一带一路 or “One Belt, One Road (OBOR)” which more accurately captures its scope. Some official writings call it a strategy, zhànlüè, 战略 and “grand strategy.” China’s foreign policy guidance makes it a core component of its “major country diplomacy with Chinese characteristics” and a “new type of international relations.” The Belt and Road is closely tied to Beijing’s ambitions to restore itself as a Great Powershi jie qiang go, 世界强国 and achieve “national rejuvenation,” zhonghua minzu weida fuxing, 中华民族伟大复兴.

It consists of new economic hubs and connected to the Chinese economy, that would make China a global economic center of gravity. The Belt and Road covers 60 percent of the world’s population according to World Bank estimates. There are 2 parts to it. The belt refers to 6 land corridors connecting China to Central, South, and Southeast Asia, the Eurasian landmass, and central Europe. The maritime silk road 世纪海上丝绸之路 refers to Chinese-built seaports and shipping lanes extending from the South China Sea to Africa in one direction, and the South Pacific in the other.

DM: How confident is the Chinese government in attaining such expansive ambitions?

PN: At the 18th Communist Party Congress in 2017, Chinese President, Xi Jinping said the Chinese had “entered a period of strategic opportunity” and were “moving closer to center stage.” This Congress laid out a plan for China to become a “world class power” by 2049. It also wrote the Belt and Road into the state and party constitutions, and issued directives to the party, government, and military, with key deliverables in 5 year increments from 2020 to 2050. “Xi Jinping Thought” was also enshrined in the constitution as a guiding philosophy and the Belt and Road’s overarching ideological framework.

Mao Zedong, the revered founder of the Communist Party, is the only other leader to have had his political ideas inscribed as “thought,” giving Xi tremendous clout to see his signature strategies, including the Belt and Road, through. Despite this evidence of increased confidence and focus, however, China’s leaders still hold a longstanding belief that while the current international system has been beneficial to China, it is not favorable to its long-term goals and will likely “suppress and contain” 压制围堵 its ambitions. Thus in the official Chinese perspective, the quest for “rejuvenation” goes together with Beijing taking an active part in leading the reform of the current international system 积极参与引领全球治理体系改革.

DM: Can you briefly explain what this means?

PN: It posits that as the Belt and Road remodels economic relations around the world, countries will seek closer political and security ties to Beijing. Overtime, this will create a “Community of Common Destiny” 人类命运共同体 that China’s leaders define as a global society modelled on Chinese norms and visions of international relations. Xi has said that China will “proactively show the way in the reform of the global governance system, creating an even better web of global partnership relations.” In a wide-ranging interview ahead of the upcoming summit, Yang Jiechi, China’s powerful foreign policy chief, said that the Belt and Road “aims to promote connectivity the world over and is an important dimension of the vision of a community with a shared future for mankind and a new type of international relations.” The Belt and Road’s “5 connectivities” – policy, trade, infrastructure, finance, and people to people – will lay the physical foundation for this new international community as understood by China’s leaders.

DM: What drives China’s quest for rejuvenation?

PN: “National rejuvenation” is an important lens for understanding contemporary Chinese policy. It has shaped Chinese social attitudes and identity since 1839 when China was invaded by foreign powers and engulfed by widespread upheaval, culminating in the collapse of the Qing Dynasty in 1912. This period is known as the “century of humiliation” 百年国耻 as it ended China’s 5,000-year imperial dynasty, marking its entry into the western international system. All of China’s modern leaders have instrumentalized the grievances of this era to fuel the cause of national rejuvenation. The mandarin name for China, Zhōngguó, 中国, or “center of the universe,” is a powerful reminder of China’s past preeminence, decline and humiliation, and drive to reclaim greatness. The Belt and Road is a core element of these master narratives. It draws on the belief that since China was at the pinnacle of its power when the ancient Silk Road was thriving, then its revival symbolizes China’s resurgence. The Silk Road was a network of trade routes controlled by imperial China extending to Asia, Europe, and East Africa. Beijing began rebuilding it in the mid-1990s, but under Xi the endeavor has become a herculean effort to power Beijing’s drive to “move closer to center stage.”

DM: What are some flagship Belt and Road projects?

PN: The Belt and Road’s growing portfolio includes railways connecting Addis Ababa to Djibouti, and Mombasa to Nairobi, the Maputo-Katembe suspension bridge in Mozambique, and Algeria’s Cherchell Ring Expressway. In Europe, 39 rail lines now connect western China to London, Duisburg, Hamburg, and 7 other cities. In Asia, high-speed railways, roads, and highways connect eastern China to cities in Thailand, Malaysia, Laos, and Indonesia. New oil and gas pipelines now connect Myanmar’s Kyaukpyu port to China’s Yunnan province along what is called the Myanmar-China corridor. It provides an overland passage to reroute China’s energy imports from Africa and the Middle East away from the Malacca Strait and other chokepoints in the South China Sea where China is engaged in territorial disputes with several other countries including Vietnam, the Philippines, and Indonesia.

The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) uses the term of art, “Malacca Dilemma,” 百度文库 to underscore China’s vulnerability to a blockade by its rivals in case of a full-blown crisis. Pakistan’s Gwadar port provides a 2nd new route in this connection. It moves Chinese traffic originating in Africa and the Middle East through the China Pakistan Economic Corridor to Xinjiang province, thereby completely avoiding the South China Sea. The positioning of select African ports as starting points for new routes such as these is part of the strategic logic behind the Belt and Road.

Belt and Road Initiative
A train on the Addis Ababa to Djibouti line in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. PHOTO/Reuters

DM: What are the other strategic dimensions of the Belt and Road in Africa?

PN: Beijing’s expanding maritime engagements are one example. Chinese state-backed firms are involved in roughly 14 port projects from Kenya to Sudan and Mauritania; Senegal to São Tomé and Principe; Cameroon to Angola, Namibia, and Mozambique; and Tanzania back to Kenya. These build on a growing list of Chinese port acquisition contracts in 50 of the world’s ports. These arrangements fit into the strategic framework of the 2017 “Vision for Maritime Cooperation Under the Belt and Road Initiative” that calls for the building of “regional shipping centers, sister ports, and port alliances.” These are all building blocks for establishing new patterns of global trade, reducing China’s dependence on sea lanes outside its control, “protecting maritime rights and interests,” 维护海洋权益 and establishing China as a “great maritime power” 海洋强国 by 2050.

From the African perspective, China’s latest maritime push will help improve Africa’s logistical efficiency, export capabilities, and regional trade. The Chinese government, for its part, have been keen to demonstrate sensitivity to African needs even as it pursues its global ambitions. Its 2015 Africa Policy Paper underscores the need for African support in “building a moderately prosperous society by 2020,” and “achieving the Chinese dream of national rejuvenation” by 2049. It also notes that China will reciprocate Africa’s support by helping it attain the ambitious goals of the African Union’s Agenda 2063.

DM: So Africa is a building block for Chinese grand strategy?

PN: Correct. Four broad principles guide Beijing’s priorities: “Big powers are the key; China’s periphery is the priority; developing countries are the foundation, and multilateral platforms are the stage, 大国是关键,周边是首要,发展中国家是基 础, 多边是重要舞台. This is how the developing world, including Africa, fit into Beijing’s global ambitions.

DM: Can you give us an example in practice?

PN: China’s expanded support for global peacekeeping is a good example. It enables Beijing to demonstrate commitment to Africa given that the majority of the world’s deployed peacekeepers are African and most peace missions are in Africa. It also portrays Beijing as being willing to align its interests with Africa’s given the prestige that African countries attach to participating in these missions. Third, it bolsters Beijing’s image as a “responsible big power,” or zeren daguo 责任大国. This cements its claims for global leadership and its calls for “reform” of the international system.

DM: How does all this generate influence for Beijing?

It puts the People’s Republic of China in a stronger position to shape global peacekeeping and peace enforcement mandates and decisions. China’s leaders have understood that the bigger a country’s troop and financial contributions to the UN, the greater its weight and influence in multilateral security discussions. China today contributes more peacekeepers than the other UN Security Council members combined, the vast majority of them deployed in Africa. It is also now the second largest contributor to the UN peacekeeping budget.

China also established the UN Peace and Development Trust Fund consisting of the Secretary General’s Peace and Security Fund and the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development Fund. Beijing’s peacekeeping profile has grown to such an extent that Chinese diplomats are making serious plays for top UN positions and can be expected to continue doing so in the foreseeable future. All this makes a break with China’s longstanding policy of “keeping a low profile, biding our time, and never claiming leadership in global affairs,” or taoguang yanghui, 韬光养晦.

DM: Could China’s peacekeeping engagements be used to support its One Belt One Road objectives?

PN: The short answer is yes. China is worried about the security risks posed to its citizens, assets, and sprawling investments along the Belt and Road. The 2019-2021 China Africa Action Plan commits China and African states to “safeguard the security of major domestic economic projects, and protect the safety of Chinese nationals, Chinese companies and major projects.” There is also a growing body of opinion among Chinese security professionals and academics that supports the idea that the PLA should be deployed overseas to protect Chinese interests along the Belt and Road.

China in 2015, adopted a national security law that allows for the overseas deployment of its security forces to “safeguard China’s overseas interests and world peace.” The Chinese Academy of Military Science’s latest Strategic Review, notes that the Belt and Road necessitates the need for China to develop a “globalized security posture.” The Chinese initiative to raise an 8,000 strong force and put it at the disposal of the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations should be seen in this light. 800 members of this force have joined the UN’s Vanguard Brigade, a new rapid reaction force that can be deployed to conflict spots in 60 days. China’s ministry of national defense had this to say about this initiative: “The Chinese military is fulfilling its responsibility to safeguard world peace and building a community of shared future for mankind with concrete actions.”

DM: So are we going to see more PLA deployments in Africa and the world?

PN: For the time being, Beijing appears reluctant to overt military deployments overseas, especially in Africa, where the PLA uniform is unfamiliar. China has also propagated a narrative on the continent that it will not adopt a security posture that is similar to that of western powers. Peacekeeping has therefore emerged as an attractive option that extends China’s security presence while maintaining its image as a provider of international public goods.

Indeed, the bulk of Beijing’s peacekeepers serve in Mali, Sudan (Darfur), South Sudan, and Democratic Republic of Congo (DR Congo), where high-value Belt and Road projects are situated. These include the Grand Inga Dam in Congo, the oil infrastructure in the two Sudans, and a planned railway connecting landlocked Mali to Senegal and Guinea. The mandate of the UN Mission in South Sudan allows Chinese troops to protect Chinese citizens, 海外公民保护 and commercial interests. In Mali, China contributes Special Forces and infantry to provide force protection for the UN mission there and protect critical infrastructure. China has also increased its high-level mediation activities along the Belt and Road, engaging in 9 such efforts in Africa, the Middle East, and Asia in 2017, up from only 3 in 2012.

Less visible, but no less consequential, is the proliferation of Chinese private security companies working discreetly with African security services to neutralize threats to local Chinese interests. Some of the security wares Beijing provides its African partners are also being used for this purpose. About US$1.3 billion was loaned for domestic security purposes between 2007 and 2017. The 2019-2021 China Africa Action Plan established 50 new security programs aimed at bolstering local capacity in meeting threats that could affect Chinese investments, including through the use of the host nation’s security forces. Chinese private security contractors are recruited from the ranks of ex PLA and other Chinese security forces.

Belt and Road Initiative
Cars drive over the newly built Maputo-Katembe bridge. PHOTO/R da Silva/DW

DM: What are other areas in which Chinese strategic interests are evident along the Belt and Road?

PN: What appears to be emerging is a model that mixes economic, security, political, and diplomatic goals. China’s naval base in Djibouti for instance, began with the construction of a civilian port by the state-owned China Merchants Group.
This base supports China’s antipiracy operations off Somalia’s coast and the Gulf of Guinea, the PLA Navy’s port visits and naval exercises with African countries, China’s military diplomacy around Africa, and citizen evacuation. The 2019-2021 China Africa Action Plan includes “sea lane security,” 航线安全as an emerging area of China’s security engagement. Djibouti plays a major role in this regard as it gives Beijing a security presence in and around strategically important maritime passageways in the Red Sea, Indian Ocean, and Mediterranean, where China is opening new sea lanes and routes.

Beijing’s tendency to mix economic, security, and political interests has been evident in other countries. Announced in July 2018, China’s military agreement with Cameroon was preceded by a PLA Navy port visit and the provision of new funds for weapons procurement. In January 2019, they signed a follow up agreement under the “Vision for Maritime Cooperation Under the Belt and Road Initiative.” In February Beijing wrote off part of Cameroon’s debt and recommitted itself to constructing a deep-water port in Kribi, that will extend the Maritime Silk Road to the Gulf of Guinea, a node for the region’s energy infrastructure.

Nigeria announced its latest military agreement with China in August 2018, 2 months after their navies participated in joint drills. It commits them to “pursuing common interests through the One Belt One Road.” In September the Nigeria Ports Authority signed a port management deal with the Guangzhou Port Authority, making Nigeria the first West African country to establish ties with a Chinese port. Ghana in September 2018, signed 8 cooperation agreements, and a “One Belt One Road Memorandum of Understanding” with China, 3 months after the PLA Navy’s 28th Escort Task Group visited Tema port. Included in the memorandum are security-related areas of cooperation including the building of the ministry of defense complex as well as the Ghana Armed Forces Barracks.

In Tanzania, the new Chinese-built “comprehensive training center” for the armed forces is located a few kilometers from the Bagamoyo megaport project, in which China is a major investor. Beijing’s emerging model of integrating economic, military, political, and diplomatic tools also features prominently in its Belt and Road engagements in Greece, Kazakhstan, Myanmar, the Maldives, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka, reflecting continuities in strategic planning and coordination.

DM: How is this integration achieved at the strategic planning level?

PN: Belt and Road coordination generally follows a Chinese planning framework known as “comprehensive national power,” 综合国力 that applies hard and soft power instruments to national objectives. An OBOR “central leading group” lǐngdǎo xiǎozǔm, 领导小组 that meets monthly and reports to Xi is responsible for coordination across the government and military. Its chairman, Hang Zheng, and 2 deputies, Wang Yang, and Wang Huning, sit together with Xi on the Politburo Standing Committee, China’s top decision-making body. Its other members, Yang Yi, and Yang Jiechi are high-ranking leaders in China’s State Council (China’s central government). Yang Jiechi, one of the Belt and Road’s key architects and China’s top diplomat, outranks the foreign minister in decision-making authority. Other bodies involved in Belt and Road planning include the National Security Commission (China’s National Security Council), and the national defense, commerce, and foreign ministries.

DM: What opportunities and risks face Africa?

PN: China’s academic institutions now offer over 60 graduate and post-graduate programs specifically designed for citizens from Belt and Road countries. Prominent ones include the new Belt and Road School at Renmin University that offers tuition-free 2 year masters programs in law and other fields, and the doctoral program at China’s Agricultural University and other technical institutions.
Africa also stands to benefit from new training opportunities under the current China/Africa plan, ranging from local government administration to industrial development, agricultural technology, and peacekeeping.

From an economic point of view, Africa can position itself to channel Belt and Road resources towards some of its infrastructure needs, currently estimated at US$107 billion annually for the next decade. The African Development Bank (AfDB) has mobilized OBOR resources and provided matching funds for several projects such as the Mombasa-Jomvu highway connecting Kenya to Central Africa.
AfDB manages the Program for Infrastructure Development in Africa, the AU’s ambitious multi-trillion dollar infrastructure plan. It is also a member of the Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) – the main vehicle for Belt and Road financing – putting it in a unique position to secure favorable agreements with China.

Several risks however need to be mitigated if African countries are to exploit these emerging strategic opportunities. China’s engagements come mainly in the form of loans and direct participation in the projects through contracts and long-term management agreements. These negotiations however remain largely outside public view and independent bodies such as parliament have minimal influence over them. While negotiating tactics vary across countries, the general trend points to heavy interference by senior elites who often bypass regulations, resulting in outcomes might be beneficial to the regime in the short-term but not to the country in the long-run.

The emerging patterns of elite-level China-Africa negotiations reflect a longstanding approach that is mostly driven by well-cultivated personal connections and networks between influential actors on both sides, a practice known in China as guanxi, 關係. This refers to a social networks and reciprocal relationships that facilitate business and political deals through personal ties, favors, obligations, and informal hierarchies. Such practices often comport with the individual, and narrow regime interests of many African elites, leading to weak accountability and lack of transparency.

Concerns about large-scale corruption, mismanagement, and default, have indeed mounted in the absence of safeguards and oversight. In an effort to minimize the harm to Beijing’s image, President Xi at the 2018 China/Africa Summit warned that Chinese funds “should not go to vanity projects” and must produce tangible benefits that “can be seen and felt.” The upcoming Belt and Road Summit has called for sustainability and good governance. For these to materialize, countries need to recommit themselves to transparency, articulate their interests more clearly, negotiate with the public and national interest in mind, keep the public informed, and subject their engagements to greater oversight and accountability. These elements were lacking in the 23 cases where countries faced the risk of debt distress and default, among them Djibouti, Egypt, Kenya, Cameroon, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, and Laos.

DM: Moving forward, how should African partners engage with the Belt and Road?

PN: Three issues are worth considering. First, the Belt and Road is still evolving and Beijing is increasing finding itself adjusting along the way as it seeks greater international support and legitimacy for the program. More countries are joining, others are reconsidering their participation, and still others are pushing to revisit their agreements. All this could make Beijing amenable to making more adjustments given the high political stakes attached to the Belt and Road’s expansion and success. African countries can use this to increase their negotiating power.

Second, China/Africa relations are no longer the exclusive preserve of governments. Engagement by independent actors is growing rapidly, bringing more voices, balance, nuance, and influence on the strategic debate on China/Africa relations. Some notable Africa-wide networks include the Africa-China-Reporting Project, China-Africa Resource Hub, China-Africa Knowledge Project, Chinese in Africa and Africans in China Research Network, and the China-Africa Working Group.

These networks alone bring together more than 1,000 independent researchers, scholars, and practitioners that have shaped the policy debate on China/Africa relations in significant ways. African private sector and civil society networks are also playing an increasingly visible role that African and Chinese governments cannot completely ignore. In Kenya for instance, sections of the private sector and media played a major role in generating pressure that led parliament to launch an inquest into the circumstances under which Mombasa port was put up as collateral to secure the Chinese loan to construct the Mombasa-Nairobi railway.

The expansion of independent voices in China/Africa relations could be critical to bringing greater scrutiny to the China/Africa relationship. Beijing continues to enjoy high favorability ratings in Africa and is sensitive to how it is perceived and how its activities are portrayed. It will need to respond to the issues being raised by independent actors or risk having its image dented as has happened in different settings such as Kenya, Lesotho, Uganda, South Africa, and Zambia to name a few.

Lastly, there are a growing number of cases where African countries secured more favorable terms from their Chinese counterparts that brought tangible benefits for their citizens, mitigated security risks, and advanced development priorities. Benin, Ethiopia, Liberia, Senegal, and Tunisia, all come to mind. These lessons need to be shared more widely and promoted as models of good practice as they are in Africa and China’s interests.


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