Both roots and routes of BRI beneficial



The word “roots” (as in the roots of a tree) captures the essence of how we ought to be thinking about deepening our economic and social interaction routes or paths. In line with that thinking, the routes of the Belt and Road Initiative must be predicated on a clear sense of how we secure rootedness across countries in a way that goes beyond the assumption that the initiative is a vision of a single country or driven by self-interest in a world where cooperation seems to have given way to coercion and rivalry.

Some countries and regions have been seeking to barricade themselves off, so as to keep enjoying their historical privileges arising from unfair terms of trade of raw materials, the dominance of certain currencies in global trade and the tendency to allow for connectivity only under conditions that support the Global South’s continued economic dependence on the Global North.

Beware of the advocates of an unequal global order

Given the geo-economic circumstances African countries have faced since gaining independence, it seems some within the dominant global order are keen to keep others in dark rooms and block the light and air to ensure they remain suffocated and economically dependent on aid and handouts.

It is in this regard that many people realize the value and vision of the Belt and Road Initiative. In both form and substance, the initiative is a transformative approach to reducing inequality between countries due to the one-sided push for economic globalization that helps some economies maintain their economic hegemony over others.

While many countries have supported globalization and liberalization, they have done so in order to maintain their economic advantages and control over the movement of goods, services and people. But in the recent shift of some economies toward protectionism, we see an attempt to support globalization only if it helps sustain their historical benefits and economic advantages.

Even as the international community seeks to build a different, fairer global social order and find new economic pathways, it is imperative that it recognizes the challenges and dilemmas faced by African countries.

How do we embrace new possibilities while the umbilical cord of history keeps dragging us into making short-term gains instead of painfully transitioning into a more prosperous future?

In South Africa, the historical linkages and our rootedness came into sharp focus when we faced a pushback from Western capitals on our position on the Russia-Ukraine, and more recently the Israel-Palestine conflict. Our participation in trade arrangements with the West was questioned with indications of possible pullbacks on trade agreements, which would be detrimental to some sectors of our economy.

As we worked to strike a balance that would prevent unemployment from rising further if existing trade agreements were arbitrarily changed, we started thinking of longer-term interventions that would make us less dependent on our traditional trading partners.

As a result, we decided to take advantage of the African Continental Free Trade Area and derive speedier economic benefits from BRICS, especially now that the grouping has expanded with the inclusion of Egypt, Ethiopia, Iran, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. We also decided to more intensely engage with the Belt and Road Initiative as it could help change the world order and usher in a new form of globalization that is fairer, much more inclusive and rooted in the Global South.

The problem is that despite wanting to embrace a new world order, we are often derailed by history and our dependence on investment and financial resources from the Global North.

In building new pathways for longer-term prosperity, we must be aware of the challenges many Global South countries face in embracing new possibilities. The political tentacles and economic umbilical cords run deep and require astute maneuvering on the part of policymakers who are expected to shape interventions to secure a better, more prosperous and inclusive future.

Initiative shows different approach to development

The engagements of the Belt and Road Initiative and China in Africa and other places show that a different approach to development is possible and that repeating the history of neocolonialism would be disastrous, because that would entail replacing Western economic actors with those from the East, which is not what the people in this region want nor is it the core intention of the Belt and Road Initiative.

The initiative aims to forge inclusive globalization and narrow the gaps between the rich and poor countries by strengthening connectivity. Yet as Africans, we should engage with the initiative with a bit of skepticism, especially because the West keeps telling us that we need to be careful of China’s development programs.

On reflection, we can see a different type of rootedness. China is playing a key role in establishing alternative modes of financing by helping establish, among others, organizations and institutions such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and the BRICS New Development Bank, with the latter opening credit lines to non-BRICS member states, too.

For many, these organizations will possibly create new opportunities for economic cooperation, sustainable development and deeper regional integration, leading to an era of shared development.

On the other hand, alternative lending systems could create a different type of rootedness, enabling African countries to access loans with some degree of economic autonomy and without any political conditions attached. In contrast, the loans given by Western countries and their institutions come with political conditions, which restrict the developmental and social roles of governments. These conditions have proved disastrous for the African continent.

Is the Chinese approach unique? Or will the Chinese institutions eventually impose the same conditions as the World Bank?

Such questions need to be approached with caution. As the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development said in its 2018 Business and Financial Report, China has a much broader approach to development. China’s more balanced regional growth policy includes upgrading its industry and pursuing greener growth. On their part, African nations should minutely study the elements across projects to gauge the level of rootedness and how benefits are distributed.

If we are not self-critical, we may find ourselves in a situation in which the material outflows from African countries to the East could leave the continent emaciated and recreate the conditions that gave rise to anti-colonial movements. We should also interrogate the range of infrastructure projects that are part of the broader initiative, and encourage much higher levels of local participation. And we should know that Western investments often had a limited positive impact on local economies owing to their tendency to limit local economic multipliers by helping transfer the funds from Western banks to Western companies.

Transfer of skills should accompany investment, even if not in all cases, and infrastructure construction should spur broader economic activities. This is aptly displayed in Chinese investments in Nigeria’s railway network, which has resulted in the establishment of nodal centers involving locals. And railway construction in Kenya has helped integrate locals in the production process.

Infrastructure initiatives coupled with the expressed commitment under the Belt and Road framework bode well for inclusivity and rootedness. In fact, countries with multifaceted economic agreements with China are, according to many commentators, experiencing positive effects. Chinese companies are also expanding in the local manufacturing sector thanks to their initial investments in infrastructure on realizing the potential benefits of local manufacturing closer to natural resources and employing local labor.

A partnership that is mutually beneficial

The more significant outcome of the initial efforts to support infrastructure development is that China has replaced the United States as Africa’s top trading partner.

Africa offers dual benefits by serving as a source of raw materials needed to drive China’s economy and as a big market where Chinese enterprises can sell their products. And African countries see trade with China also as a means to boost investments in crucial infrastructure projects and as an inexpensive source of capital equipment and consumer goods.

But despite the success of the Africa-China partnership, we should not lose sight of the challenges and the imperatives of ensuring detailed, evidence-based analysis to determine whether or not the routes (and comprehensive infrastructure projects) are only about serving some Chinese companies’ growing business interests.

We must remain vigilant against incidents such as poor workmanship and non-compliance with local labor laws despite our sense of positivity in relationship and the need for diplomatic niceties, and ensure that those who exercise economic power do so in a way that embodies what we call the social benefits of the Belt and Road Initiative and opens up alternative paths to economic development.

To tread the paths to inclusivity and reduce global inequality, we need to boost our research and policy implementation capability. This is sometimes taken for granted in a society where a meritocratic system has evolved over the years. But it need not be so.


*The author is director-general of the National School of Government of South Africa. 

Source: China Daily Global