US takes up China's infrastructure mantle in Africa

Kenyan laborers work on the Nairobi-Mombasa railway, a Chinese project, near Nairobi on Nov. 23, 2016. The United States confirmed this week that it will take on its own infrastructure project in Zambia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Angola. [VOA]

This week, the U.S. State Department confirmed that Washington's plan to refurbish and extend the Lobito Corridor - a railway that will run through mineral-rich Zambia and the Democratic Republic of Congo to an Atlantic port in Angola - is moving full steam ahead.

Such ambitious infrastructure investments by other powers in Africa have been derailed in the past. For years, China has tried with mixed results to increase its influence in Africa and boost trade connectivity by investing in ports and railways.

Debt-incurring or unfinished projects undertaken as part of Beijing's Belt and Road Initiative, or BRI, have been criticized, prompting what analysts see as a new focus on what Chinese President Xi Jinping has called a "small and beautiful" approach.

Now the West is stepping in, with the U.S., European Union, the three African nations, and two financial institutions signing a memorandum of understanding last month to develop the partially existing Lobito Corridor.

Plans were outlined in an online media briefing this week, and a six-month feasibility study is expected to start before the end of the year, said Helaina Matza, the acting special coordinator for the Partnership on the Global Infrastructure Investment, or PGII. The intention is to get the 800 kilometers (500 miles) of new track built within five years at an estimated cost of more than $1 billion, she said.

When asked how the U.S. plans to sustain the project long-term and avoid the mistakes made by other foreign powers pursuing infrastructure projects on the continent, Matza was optimistic.

"It's not all concessional financing going directly to governments," she said, noting that a private partner, the Africa Finance Corp., is involved and will be putting "forward a plan for operation and maintenance and putting forward a plan around capacity development."

While not mentioning China directly, she said: "I think we've learned from mistakes and projects that over the years, frankly, we've helped bail out because they needed refurbishment a little too quickly."

Liu Pengyu, China's Embassy spokesperson in Washington told VOA in an emailed response that there is "broad space for cooperation in the field of global infrastructure, and there is no question of various relevant initiatives contradicting or replacing each other."

Liu also denied the frequent criticism that Beijing is using BRI and its projects to create spheres of influence.

"Any calculation to advance geopolitics in the name of infrastructure development is not welcome and doomed to fail," he said.

Lessons from the BRI?

One of China's largest BRI investments was the $4.7 billion Standard Gauge Railway in Kenya, which started operating in 2017 and connects the capital, Nairobi, with the port city of Mombasa.

The railway was supposed to connect to neighboring Uganda, as a way of bringing critical minerals to the coast, but it never got that far, leaving the cargo side of the business struggling. This week the Kenyan government announced a sharp increase in fares for passengers, citing rising fuel prices.

The announcement came on the heels of President William Ruto's visit last month to China, where he was seeking a $1 billion loan to complete unfinished infrastructure projects. Some Kenyans have also criticized the project for not hiring enough locals to operate the railway.

Asked whether the existence of the BRI will help inform the new US/EU initiative, Yunnan Chen, a researcher at the global think tank Overseas Development Institute, said it has already had an impact.

"While the BRI can be criticized in many areas, one success it's certainly had is to raise the profile of infrastructure in development, and crowded in greater interest - and welcome competition - in this space," she said, noting the G7 now has the Partnership for Global Infrastructure and Investment and the E.U. has the Global Gateway. The first Global Gateway forum was held last month in Brussels, where the Lobito Corridor memorandum of understanding was signed.

"The fact that the U.S. has taken such a deep interest in Angola - a major BRI partner and one of the largest recipients of infrastructure lending from China - is a clear sign they want to ramp up the competition directly in China's spheres of interest," she said.

While some of the Chinese projects have faced "legitimate criticism," Chen said, railway projects can be difficult to make profitable based on passengers and freight if they are not linked to the mining sector.

"The Lobito Corridor may do better than some of the East African projects since they will likely be directly connected to minerals/mining projects that justify the freight, but it will be a test to see how the U.S. and EU will tackle the challenges that rail construction brings," she said.

These challenges include social and environmental impacts and management of the railway once completed, all problems the Chinese have faced. Chen said it will be interesting to see how the West now fares "given the emphasis on higher standards."

Matza, the acting PGII coordinator, said, "Our ethos for any sort of infrastructure we invest in is that the project is transparent."

She said the U.S. wants to ensure that "the whole corridor is successful and that people who live along that corridor can participate not only in commerce but in other activities that really benefit the economic development of themselves and their countries."

View from Africa

So who do ordinary Africans trust more when it comes to infrastructure investment, the U.S. or China?

VOA put that question to Johannesburg residents this week to see what they think.

Musician Luyolo Yiba, 29, was cynical as he sipped a drink at a sidewalk cafe.

"Both are looking at taking minerals, so it's tricky to say this one is better than that one," he said, adding that he doubts the U.S. is primarily concerned with helping the African people and that he expected the money to be lost to government corruption in Africa.

Zoyisile Donshe, an entrepreneur in his 40s, said he doesn't think there needs to be competition for influence in Africa at all.

"They see that Africa is the future," he said. "I love America, I love China as well. They're creating opportunities in Africa. ... I think most Africans would prefer them to cooperate."

Asked whether the Lobito Corridor could end up being linked to any Chinese-built railways in the region, Matza said it was too soon to say but did not rule it out.

"There's a lot of work happening, there's maybe a Tazara refurbishment," she said, referring to a railway linking Zambia and Tanzania.

"There's a lot of talks about an additional rail line that can continue south and maybe out through Mozambique," she said. "We're taking this on one piece at a time knowing what we can finance, support and help design."