by Nakubyana Mungomba
During the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party held in October, China added the Belt and Road Initiative into its Constitution. This Initiative represents China’s latest great ambition to build a global economic empire. If executed successfully, it would be Chinese President Xi Jinping’s most important foreign policy and greatest legacy.
Its addition to the Constitution enshrines it as an enduring legal provision for Chinese global development cooperation. The Initiative was first unveiled in 2013 and under it, China will underwrite billions of dollars of infrastructure investment along the historic Silk Route that connected China to Europe. This will primarily aim at building transport and energy infrastructure, including ports, roads, railways, and power plants, in the countries through which the Route passes.
Details of exactly how much money and how many countries will ultimately be counted towards the Belt and Road Initiative remain ambiguous, but current estimates state that roughly $150 billion has already been invested globally. What is certain, however, is that this is a long-term investment of mammoth proportions whose timespan will not be measured in years but decades. Further, the vague approach means that the Initiative is flexible enough to evolve over time and reinvent itself with changing global economic circumstances.
The narrative coming out of China for attempting such an enormous undertaking is that they are setting an example for globalization and deeper integration of markets. This appears to be in response to the longstanding global leader, the USA, looking more and more inward with its America First policy. However, another motivation may be to increase both geo-political and cultural dominance globally by garnering more soft power. For Africa, and indeed Zambia, it thus becomes important to interrogate the benefits of this outpouring of investment. For example, who benefits most from infrastructure development on the Continent when better transport infrastructure also means easier access routes to ship out natural resources?
While the broad Belt and Road Initiative roadmap is somewhat silent on Africa, the Initiative is touted as being flexible and welcomes any country that wishes to come on board. In this regard, it appears that the Initiative will reinforce and complement the already existing Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC); any relevant investment that takes place under one may be counted towards the other. On the whole, the Initiative therefore appears to offer another avenue for infrastructure development on the Continent.
For Zambia, the Belt and Road Initiative presents an added opportunity to build on its longstanding relationship with China. With Zambia neighbouring eight countries in the region, the country has the potential to become a central hub for economic activity in the long-term. The bilateral relationship between Zambia and China has already spanned several decades starting with the construction of TAZARA which helped Zambia gain access to the Indian Ocean. More recently, China has begun to invest heavily in road infrastructure with various projects being undertaken across the country including the Lusaka-Ndola dual carriageway. In terms of railway infrastructure, Chinese investment is being put into a 388km rail-line connecting Chipata and Serenje. This railway will help with integration of the transport system in the region by connecting Zambia with Tanzania, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Malawi and Mozambique. For instance, it will enhance transportation within Zambia and open up access to the Nacala Corridor and Nacala Port in Mozambique, via Malawi.
The Belt and Road Initiative thus presents several potential benefits, but these should also be approached with caution. Firstly, the Initiative makes it easier to access Chinese funding for development projects as China seeks to find viable investment options. However, it would be important to understand that China is not being altruistic in providing infrastructure investment funding; it is making strategic investments to secure positive long-term returns. As such, when the infrastructure financing comes as loans, the risk of unsustainable debt accumulation for countries like Zambia cannot be ignored.
The Initiative goes beyond just transport infrastructure projects to include investments in economic zones and industrial parks, for example the Lusaka East Multi Facility Economic Zone (MFEZ). However, while such economic investment is welcome, some observers have expressed concern that Chinese financing does not always lend itself to joint ventures with a local ownership component. Such investment should be accompanied by genuine knowledge and technology transfer to local populations for broader economic development in the long run.
Overall, however, the Chinese financed infrastructure development will open up more channels of trade not just with China, but the rest of the world. This will present a real opportunity for Zambia to move from being viewed as landlocked to being truly land-linked.
And so with the immortalisation of the Belt and Road Initiative in the Chinese Constitution, China’s ambitions to extend its global influence are clear. China’s initiatives represent an enormous pie that is being brought to the global party. Zambia will do well to invest in getting a piece without biting off more than it can chew.