The new Silk Road sought by Beijing will directly link Chinese ports to East Africa. What does this project reveal about China’s geopolitical strategy and about the relations between the Middle Kingdom and Africa? A review.

View of the port of Doraleh, Djibouti - UN - Photo Evan Schneider
View of the port of Doraleh, Djibouti - UN - Photo Evan Schneider

China moves toward East Africa with a massive project

The Road and Belt Initiative, also called the New Silk Road, was announced by Chinese President Xi Jinping in 2013. It aims to link China by land and sea to more than 60 countries, mostly of them developing, accounting for more than a quarter of the world’s GDP. The tentative sea route would round the Asian continent by the South to link Chinese ports to countries located on the Gulf of Bengal and then cross the Indian Ocean to reach East Africa. Four countries have ports on this route: Kenya, Sudan, Ethiopia and Djibouti.

Relations between the Middle Kingdom and the African continent are not new: 52 Chinese diplomatic missions can be found in Africa, and 2014 trade was estimated at 220 billion dollars by the China Africa Research Initiative (CARI) of Johns Hopkins University. It is these links and trade relations that China seeks to foster in this project which will benefit Chinese manufactured goods exports as well as raw materials imports, according to Françoise Nicolas, Central Asia director of the Institut français des relations internationales (Ifri). China is attracted as much by Africa’s raw materials as its consumer market.

While the obvious prospects for the “New Silk Road” project are commercial and economic, the diplomatic and political interests should not be underestimated. Some specialists, like the University of Surrey’s Tom Harper, maintain that one of the goals of this road is to “transform the way China deals with its Asian neighbours and with the world beyond.” Others go further, stating that China seeks to assert itself as a leader of developing countries.



China in Africa: a certain vision of development

For Branko Milanovic, an economist, income inequality specialist and professor at City University of New York, North countries are mired in a soft vision, whereas the New Silk Road permits the Chinese government to reactivate the definition of development which was dominant before the 1980s. According to this “hard” vision, “development does not happen by itself, and fair prices, tax reductions and deregulation are insufficient.” Above all, developing countries have concrete needs like infrastructure. And that is indeed what China is endeavoring to provide African partner countries: between 2003 and 2015, Chinese aid to Africa grew from 631 million euros to nearly 3 billion, according to Johns Hopkins University. Chinese investment mainly finances major communication routes and production units, as shown on this list of emblematic projects, compiled by The Guardian.



Currently, African countries are favorably welcoming these investors, and this new source of aid is often deemed a win-win partnership rather than an aid policy. The results of a 2016 Afrobarometer survey carried out in 36 countries on the continent show that 63% of Africans think that Chinese investment has a positive influence in their country. According to Jing Gu, director of the Centre of Rising Powers and Global Development at the University of Sussex, “it is important for China that its relationship with Africa appear mutually beneficial.”

Others are less sanguine on the implication of China and Chinese companies in Africa, and question the new dependence of the African continent. The cartoonist Godfrey Mwampenbwa often depicts the iniquity he sees in Africa-China trade (herehere or here). Lauren A. Johnston, a researcher at the Melbourne Institute of Applied Economic and Social Research at the University of Melbourne, considers that in their negotiations with Chinese officials, “African governments should be hard-nosed […] in agreeing the best policy mix and governance structures for realising African wins.

All these questions on China-Africa cooperation will be at the heart of the second edition of the China-Africa Investment Forum organized on the 25th and 26th of November 2017 in Marrakesh.




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