In October the Chinese Communist Party enshrined Xi Jinping’s “One Belt, One Road Initiative” (OBOR) in its constitution. The move again demonstrates how the sweeping plan linking China and Europe via land and sea routes now is at the heart of China’s foreign policy and international development strategy. However, the project is not simply unidirectional. The Belt and Road Forum for Global Development held in Beijing in May gave China an opportunity to both present itself as part of a recently coined global community of countries along the trans-Eurasian route, and as a leader of that community. It offered China a chance to present a China-centered vision of globalization, clad in the rhetoric of mutual development.
The Western discussion of OBOR’s global impact has generally framed the initiative in terms of enhancing Chinese influence along the OBOR routes and globally.  In fact, concerns around the expansion of Chinese power via OBOR was said to have kept several leaders from attending the summit (FMPRC, May 11).
However, viewing OBOR as a vector of Chinese economic influence and soft power is justified does not tell the whole story. A Beijing-centered view of the initiative underplays its potential influence on regions along the route. OBOR is important not only because it might increase and channel Chinese influence through West Asia and the Indian Ocean basin, but also for the effect it might have on local and regional integration along the way. One of the less frequently discussed outposts of the OBOR route provides a useful illustration: East Africa. On official maps the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road only touches East Africa before turning towards Europe. However, this connection could have a significant impact on the region, both because of economic integration on a local level, and by forging connections between East Africa and neighboring regions. These integrations provide a useful example of the complexity of OBOR, and how its potential impact stretches beyond the specific issue of these regions’ connections to China.
OBOR, East Africa and the Nature of Local Integration
The southern leg of OBOR’s two westward routes, the 21st century Maritime Silk Road, is projected to reach Africa at the Kenyan port of Mombasa, where it meets a rail line inland to Nairobi. The sea route then proceeds northward towards the Suez Canal and Greece. The fact that the official map of OBOR presents Kenya’s landlocked capital Nairobi, rather than the harbor city of Mombasa, as a key node in the route points to the fact that OBOR is connecting to East Africa in a more complex way than meets the eye.
Nairobi is a regional node, thanks to a massive Chinese-funded railway and road network connecting Kenyan cities and extending towards other countries in the sub-region (AllAfrica, May 14). A line between Mombasa and Nairobi was completed in late May, and now carries 7,000 passengers per week (Xinhua, June 7). Another newly opened line links land-locked Ethopia’s capital Addis Ababa- with the port of Djibouti (Xinhua, October 5). When finished, the network will connect Kenya with Ethiopia, South Sudan, Uganda, Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda, and Burundi, as well as proving a link between Nairobi and the secondary port of Lamu. In the past, these kinds of developments have raised echoes of British colonial networks that funneled raw commodities out of Africa while undercutting local manufacturing with cheap imports. Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta pointed out during the OBOR summit 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”. The recent discovery of oil and gas deposits around the East African coast means that the extractive model will certainly be strengthened once OBOR routes are set up.  It is clear that it will take a massive effort from African governments to not remain locked in this cycle (Business Daily Africa, April 19).
However, unlike colonial networks, the connection between OBOR and Chinese-funded local networks will not only boost extraction through harbor-hinterland connections. They will also connect regional centers to each other. In this sense, OBOR could partly ease a problem that has bedeviled African development since the end of the colonial era. The lack of coherent trans-border infrastructure networks is the result of incoherent planning by different colonial rulers, resulting in truncated connections that make it extremely expensive to get both raw materials and manufactured goods from one African country to the other. The lack of network maintenance endemic to many African countries has exacerbated the problem. The UN notoriously estimated that it is less expensive to transport a car from Japan to Cote d’Ivoire than transporting that same car from Ethiopia to Cote d’Ivoire.  While the OBOR-related regional rail network does not wholly solve this problem, it certainly goes a long way towards softening its impact in East Africa. While the networks will channel more Chinese goods into Africa and more raw African commodities to China, it also has the potential to facilitate trade and shared manufacturing between different East African economies. In this sense, the OBOR initiative has the potential to achieve a certain amount of regional integration—a long-held ideal of African development.
The question then becomes to which extent these regional rail and logistics networks can be seen as strictly part of the OBOR network, considering that it was planned before the official announcement of the OBOR initiative in 2013. The project forms part of a Kenyan national development plan and memoranda of understanding approving sections of the network were already signed by representatives of the Kenyan and Ugandan governments in 2009. However, the network is also largely funded by loans from Chinese lenders and built by Chinese state-owned corporations (railway-technology.com, [accessed November 7]. Therefore, these rail lines are not clearly either a Kenyan or Chinese initiative, but rather a complex meshing of African development plans with larger Chinese initiatives. In this sense, OBOR presents an intriguing perspective on the sometimes highly unequal nature of south-south cooperation, and raises questions about the nature of African agency in the 21st century.
OBOR and East Africa’s Regional Connections
The complex enmeshing of African and Chinese agendas becomes clear in the case of Djibouti. The tiny country’s position at the entrance to the Gulf of Aden gives it clear strategic importance, and renting out territory for foreign military bases is a key part of Djibouti’s economy. Several countries, including France, Japan and the United States have bases in Djibouti. China has now joined them with its own base—its first overseas military base—only a few kilometers from the United States’ Camp Lemonnier (China Brief, July 21). The Chinese base will be a coordination center for a host of military operations that, while predating OBOR, will also crucially strengthen it. A notable example is the multilateral anti-piracy operations off the coast of Somalia, but it also includes peacekeeping in South Sudan (China Brief, August 22, 2016).
The combination of OBOR and the new military base has also opened new opportunities for Djibouti to restyle itself as a logistics center. The Chinese state-owned telecom China Telecom has recently chosen Djibouti has the site of a high-speed internet exchange, and Djibouti’s government has announced plans to build a large new airport with the stated intention of maximizing its proximity to the Middle East to compete with West Asian logistics hubs like Dubai (China Telecom, December 5; GlobalRiskInsights, December 5).  If successful, proximity to OBOR could allow Djibouti to extend beyond its role as host to foreign armies towards competing or cooperating with other East African logistics centers like Nairobi and Addis Ababa. This regional development can’t been seen apart from the Chinese state-owned companies’ role in expanding data and other networks along the OBOR route, offering African countries the chance to gain influence locally and regionally from China’s attempt to gain global influence (SCMP, December 2, 2016).
The rise of East Africa as a logistics hub is not surprising if one considers its geographical proximity to both the Middle East and Europe. If the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road becomes a reality, it will have the, perhaps inadvertent, effect of linking these nodes even more conclusively. Chinese investments in certain East African economies arguably already play that role. The most notable example of this is Ethiopia. Long a center for leatherwork, Ethiopia has increasingly played host to Chinese apparel and shoe manufacturers, motivated by rising labor costs in China and incentives offered by the Ethiopian government. Chinese investment in special economic zones co-developed by Chinese companies and the Ethiopian government is increasing. The key market for the goods produced in these zones is Europe, and OBOR-related shipping routes past Ethiopia towards the Suez Canal, and the rail link between Ethiopia and Djibouti will be key to the further development of this manufacturing economy. There are signs that European companies (for example the Swedish fast fashion brand H&M) are also starting to use Ethiopia as a manufacturing base for similar reasons.
Chinese capital was key to the development of these special economic zones, and Chinese companies moving towards offshoring in order to target Europe were key to the establishment of Ethiopia as a potential center of garment manufacture. If OBOR is completed as planned, it will arguably both increase Chinese influence on the macro level while integrating East Africa with closer hubs to the north and east.
Even the most ardent enthusiast might find it difficult to take some of the Chinese government’s rhetoric around OBOR’s global influence seriously. As Xi Jinping stated during his opening speech at the May OBOR Summit:
“We should build the Belt and Road into a road connecting different civilizations. In pursuing the Belt and Road Initiative, we should ensure that when it comes to different civilizations, exchange will replace estrangement, mutual learning will replace clashes, and coexistence will replace a sense of superiority” (Global Times, May 14).
However, the rhetoric also appeals to African countries in two key ways. In the first place, it touches on African perceptions that the West can only see Africa through strategic and aid lenses. Xi hinted at this perception in a reference to China’s choice to “not resort to outdated geopolitical maneuvering.” In the second place, OBOR rhetoric gives a central place to development. In the same speech, Xi stated bluntly that: “Development holds the master key to solving all problems” (Global Times, May 14). This resonates with African listeners, for whom systemic underdevelopment trumps many other concerns. It becomes even more powerful when that development is envisioned to take place on local, regional and transnational levels simultaneously.
From its earliest iterations, OBOR was envisioned as both connecting regional hubs to China and connecting them to each other. Since to its coining in 2013, Chinese government statements have consistently called for greater regional integration, and emphasized the provision of trans-frontier transportation and logistics networks as key to the entire project (NDRC, March 30, 2015). Even if one takes the often grandiose official OBOR rhetoric with a grain of salt, it is worth noting that the initiative was articulated as a series of “interlinked regional integrations that ultimately translate into a link with Beijing.
Seen from Western capitals, both might seem equally objectionable, but in the African context the difference is significant. While Africa has enthusiastically done business with China over the last two decades, misgivings about the power imbalance between the two remain. It is exactly in offering nested development opportunities on the local, regional and global levels, that OBOR really speaks to Africa.
See for example: Joshua Kurlantzick, “China’s Soft Power Offensive, One Belt One Road, and the Limitations of Beijing’s Soft Power, Part 2” Council on Foreign Relations May 16, 2017 https://www.cfr.org/blog/chinas-soft-power-offensive-one-belt-one-road-and-limitations-beijings-soft-power-part-2
Augé, Benjamin, 2015.”Oil and gas in Eastern Africa: Current Developments and Future Perspectives.” French Institute of International Relations/OCP Policy Center. http://www.ocppc.ma/sites/default/files/OCPPC-Ifri-PN1502.pdf
Kimenyi, Mwangi S. et al, 2016. “Introduction: Intra-African trade in context” Brookings Africa Growth Initiative https://www.brookings.edu/wp-content/uploads/2016/07/01_intro_intra_african_trade.pdf
According to unconfirmed reports from local officials, a Chinese company which was awarded a contract to build the airports has had the contract revoked, perhaps indicating between Chinese companies local governments. See Bloomberg, October 19, 2017.