On his first visit to Africa this week, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang has once again underlined the importance of high-speed railways in Beijing’s diplomacy. From America to Asia and Europe to Africa, Chinese leaders are offering technology, finance and project management in the construction of high-speed rail networks. In Addis Ababa on Monday, the first stop in a four-nation tour of what he called the “continent of hope”, Li outlined a plan to connect all major African cities through a high-speed railway network. The project is at the heart of a new framework for Sino-African partnership that Li elaborated upon in his address to the African Union in Addis Ababa.
In talking about the “Chinese dream” for a continent-wide railway in Africa, Li was not playing with words. He was invoking China’s enduring romance with railways. Sun Yat Sen, who led Beijing’s first republic in the early 20th century, believed railways would modernise and unite China. Sun’s rail strategy was not limited to the borders of China; he wanted to extend Chinese railroads to India, the Middle East and Africa.
Sun’s communist successors too pursued this dream. Li’s trip to Africa comes nearly 50 years after his predecessor, Zhou Enlai, took the continent by storm during a 10-nation tour from December 1963 to January 1964. China followed up by undertaking one of the biggest infrastructure projects beyond its borders. During 1970-75, China spent $500 million dollars and deployed nearly 50,000 Chinese engineers and technicians to build the 1,800 km Tan-Zam railway between the copper-rich regions of Zambia and Dar es Salaam on the Indian Ocean coast of Tanzania.
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Li is conscious of the criticism that China’s approach to Africa is “neocolonial” and is focused on resource extraction. Rejecting that charge, Li showcased China’s role in transforming African economies and contributing to the rapid and comprehensive development of the region. In Addis Ababa, Li outlined a six-fold agenda for future partnership between China and Africa. This includes strong support for Africa’s industrialisaton and infrastructure development. Li also wants to double trade between China and Africa to $400 billion by 2020.
Countering criticism that Beijing’s projects do not generate local jobs, Li promised to shift labour-intensive manufacturing from China to the region as part of a strategy to build a long-term, sustainable economic and trade partnership with Africa. In addition, Li offered $10 billion in new loans and another $2 billion to the China-Africa Development Fund. Li also promised to boost anti-poverty programmes and offered a grant of $10 million for ecological protection. He promised 18,000 scholarships for African students and support for training programmes for nearly 30,000 African professionals.
The six-point programme was not all about economic cooperation and people-to-people exchanges. It includes an important security dimension. Although a late entrant to international peacekeeping, China is offering to train African militaries in this area. Much of international peacekeeping today occurs in Africa. Li also offered to help African security forces to develop capacity in the area of counter-terrorism and anti-piracy activities.
Maritime Silk Road
Li’s week-long tour in Africa is taking him to Ethiopia, Nigeria, Angola and Kenya. In Nairobi later this week, Li is expected to highlight east Africa’s importance in the Chinese strategy in building the Maritime Silk Road. Since they took charge a year ago, Li and President Xi Jinping have pushed the concept of a Silk Road Industrial Belt linking China with different regions of Eurasia, and a Maritime Silk Road connecting Beijing’s eastern seaboard in the Pacific with ports in Southeast Asia, the subcontinent, the Persian Gulf and east Africa.
China is actively involved in developing transport corridors, modernising old ports and building new ones in Africa. On the Indian Ocean coast, Tanzania and Kenya have competed with each other in drawing Chinese infrastructure investment. Last year, China signed a framework agreement with Tanzania to construct the Bagamoyo port north of Dar es Salaam, build road and rail networks linking it to the hinterland and develop a special economic zone. Total investment in this project could exceed $10 billion.
China has also backed the grand project unveiled by the governments of Kenya, Ethiopia and South Sudan to develop the so-called LAPSSET corridor. The plan is to connect a new port at Lamu in northern Kenya with landlocked South Sudan
The writer is a distinguished fellow at the Observer Research Foundation,
Delhi and a contributing editor for ‘The Indian Express’