China steps up drive to integrate Africa with Maritime Silk Road

January 19, 2015 08:52 pm | Updated January 21, 2015 02:07 am IST - BEIJING

China has accelerated its drive to draw Africa into the Maritime Silk Road — Beijing’s ambitious transcontinental initiative - following the visit to the continent by Foreign Minister Wang Yi.

Among the several themes that were covered during Mr. Wang’s five-nation visit, the push for speedy construction of a modern standard-gauge rail link between Nairobi and Mombasa was one of the star highlights.

The project to linkup the capital of Kenya and the country’s well-established port has much larger implications. Once it is through, the rail corridor will help connect the vast hinterland of East Africa with the Indian Ocean, making it a salient strategic project, which will add one more layer to the realisation of President Xi Jinping’s dream of establishing a 21st century Maritime Silk Road (MSR).

If plans materialise, Mombasa would be eventually linked with Malaba in west Kenya and then Kampala, Kigali and Juba - capitals of Uganda, Rwanda and South Sudan.

The Chinese undertook the project, clearly aware of the larger regional opportunities that it presented. Symbolically, this was evident when the leaders from Uganda, Rwanda and South Sudan stood aside with visiting Chinese Prime Minister Li Keqian in Nairobi, along with representatives from Tanzania, Burundi and the African Development Bank, to sign a deal on the project.

As concrete steps are taken on ground, it has become apparent that Africa is becoming one the pillars of the MSR project. Apart from building railroads, highways and airports, the Chinese are developing 12 deep water ports, seven of which are along the African coastline.

These are Djibouti, Dares Salaam, Maputo, Libreville (Gabon), Tema (Ghana), Dakar (Senegal), Bizerte (Tunisia).

In turn, these ports connect with the MSR, as they are meant to serve large commercial ships coming from Asia, laden with food and industrial products, and return with raw materials from Africa.

Africa connects well with one of the major spurs of the MSR — the Chinese province of Yunnan, which shares borders with Myanmar, Vietnam and Laos, with Thailand further to the south.

Hoping to avoid the vulnerable Malacca strait, the Chinese are building rail corridors from Kunming, Yunnan’s capital, to Myanmar and Thailand via landlocked Laos. China has signed an agreement to build a rail corridor that will connect Yunnan with Myanmar’s port city of Kyaukphyu on the Bay of Bengal, thus bypassing Malacca straits. Kyaukphyu is also the starting point of the China-Myanmar oil and gas pipeline, and enters China at the city of Ruili.

With Laos, the China-Vientiane railroad project is expected to be completed by 2018. China has recently approved a 23 billion dollar project, which includes a high-speed link between Chaing Khong, just south of the Laos’ capital Vientiane, with Ban Phachi in Thailand.

Some analysts are of the view that China and Thailand are taking the lead in building the MSR’s connection with Africa. The website East by Southeast reported that in 2014, Chinese and Thai officials have formed investment vehicles for the construction of the seven strategic ports on the African coastlines.

Thai rice exporters are likely to be one of the main beneficiaries of the Asia-Africa link under the MSR plan. Already 60 per cent of Thai rice exports in 2013 headed for Africa, and consumption trend was even higher in 2014.

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