The start of February was met with celebrations in East Africa as the first transnational railway on the continent made its maiden voyage from Djibouti to Ethiopia’s capital of Addis Ababa. China was a large driving force behind the construction of the railway. The country not only designed the railway system but also supplied the trains and imported hundreds of engineers who carried out the entire planning process. The 466-mile long line was also funded solely by China, and this venture came at a cost of $4 billion. Within China itself, the construction of some of the world’s most extensive and modern railways has been successful.
Now, China is taking its railroad-building capabilities global. The trend is even projected to reach the United States as plans for Chinese-built subway cars are underway for the near-future in the major cities of Boston and Chicago. China is also embarking on another large venture in Indonesia, where a $5 billion high-speed railway is being constructed. China is even using railroads to further its connections with other countries.
The Chinese government recently approved a new rail service for transporting freights between London and Beijing. There are even plants to create a more extensive Pan-Asia Railway Network that would run lines between China, Laos, Thailand and Singapore. China’s efforts at railway building are creating greater international connections. Despite its own great progress, some of the greatest effects of this railway boom are expected in Africa.
The countries that constitute sub-Saharan Africa have experienced an upward economic trend in recent years. Still, this economic growth has been slow. Economic growth has been stymied by a lack of adequate infrastructure, which makes the transportation of goods and people difficult.
According to the Africa Development Bank, these nations only have half of their roads paved. Furthermore, only 600 million people are able to access electricity. Even China has experienced a slowdown in economic growth in recent years. In an effort to reinvigorate economic growth, the Chinese government is trying to use railway construction to forge greater connections with China’s key trading partners. This cost of the effort is totaled at about $1 trillion. It is hoped that these new railroads will be the key to African development, facilitating increased travel and new, improved ways for Africans to conduct business both domestically and internationally.
The African railway system is expansive. It encompasses a rail system in Ethiopia’s capital; a $13 billion system connecting Kenya’s capital of Nairobi as well as the port city of Mombasa; and finally a modernization campaign in Nigeria that includes an urban transit system based out of Lagos.
China is a world leader in taking the initiative to fund development in Africa, an area in which the United States has largely been overshadowed by China. The U.S. has largely taken a hands-off approach when it comes to financing projects in Africa. One of the few exceptions and the largest project undertaken by the U.S. in Africa to date, occurred in 2013.
At that time, former President Barack Obama announced a $9.7 billion plan to vastly expand the number of Africans with access to electricity. However, the goal of providing electricity to 20 million households within a five-year timespan was not achieved. Furthermore, China has been decidedly more active in its trading relations with the African continent. China became Africa’s number one trading partner back in 2009, surpassing the U.S. The current status quo of Chinese and U.S. involvement in Africa could undergo changes under the new Trump administration. Thus far, the outlook for future relations between the U.S. and Africa remains unclear.
President Trump has shown that he is not a major proponent of free trade agreements, and a report issued by his transition team to the State Department was apparently not favorable to continued efforts at foreign aid and development in Africa. While China has proved majorly beneficial to development efforts in Africa, the loss of the United States could still be a major blow to economic progress. Furthermore, financial experts from the Africa Growth Initiative at the Brookings Institute point out that the United States could also face losses by abandoning Africa, which could be a large potential market.
These experts believe that the reward outweighs the risk, lauding efforts by China. Besides the railway system, China has invested more than $14 billion dollars in the small, impoverished country of Djibouti. With these funds, China has constructed three ports, two airports and a pipeline connecting the nation with Ethiopia. China has even greater plans for developing Djibouti, including coal-fired power plants which would create a new, tax-free manufacturing zone for the nation, which could in turn potentially lead to the nation becoming a hub for international shipping.
Indeed, transportation of goods has become easier as what was once a few days’ journey by truck has been decreased to a mere 12-hour transit through the construction of the railroad. Despite the positive effects of China’s involvement, some fear that the changes will backfire due to the large amount of debt incurred by the African nations, fueling worries that the countries will be unable to repay the large loans. Additionally, the corruption of Djibouti’s government and possible economic malfeasance is a growing concern. Some are hopeful that should Africa maintain the new railways, their economic progress should continue on into the future.