China’s Belt & Road Power Grab Comes Under Pressure in Sudan
Simon Speakman Cordall explains how China’s unparalleled access to African markets is also causing the kind of political turmoil that undermines its interests
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That the conflict in Sudan has consequences beyond the country’s borders has been established in much of the reporting on the conflict. However, beyond the immediate horror and the lives lost within the country, is the greater threat to the geopolitical ambitions of one of the world’s most significant powers, China.
If it succeeds in its entirety, China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) will span continents, bringing together 65% of the world’s population, three-quarters of global energy resources and 40% of the world’s GDP, Time reported. Within this latticework of roads, routes and political influence, Africa represents a fundamental cornerstone.
Over the past two decades, China has ploughed some $155 billion into African economies, funding projects designed to breathe fresh life into sometimes moribund economies, while allowing Beijing unparalleled access to Africa’s internal markets.
Those markets are significant. Nearly half the world’s gold lies under African soil, as well as around a third of the planet’s minerals. Oil, (around 12% of known global reserves) and gas, (8%) can also be found there. In addition, the continent has one of the planet’s youngest and swiftly growing populations, at a time when the world’s population is gradually shrinking and ageing.
That’s not to say that China will be acting in isolation. In the last year, the US, EU and the UK have all either announced or held summits with the principal leaders of the continent, while Russia, already established within the continent, has published details of its second economic and humanitarian forum, to be held in July of this year.
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However, as Sudan has recently demonstrated, in addition to its treasures, Africa is also one of the world’s more unstable regions. Coup and counter-coup has come to dominate life for many in West Africa. A devastating drought, which rarely troubles Western headlines, has been destroying lives in East Africa, while refugees in their millions flee the myriad of minor conflicts that fizzle and crack in the gaps between the continent’s headline-grabbing clashes.
Despite the inroads of rival powers, Beijing’s financial footprint remains significant. So far, 52 African countries have entered into partnership agreements with Beijing, Chinese state media reported. According to their Ambassador to Rwanda, Wang Xuekun, “Chinese enterprises have built or upgraded more than 10,000 kilometres of African railways, 100,000 kilometres of highways, nearly 1,000 bridges and almost 100 ports and over 80 large-scale power facilities under infrastructure cooperation,” he added last year, in addition to China’s involvement in building schools and hospitals across the continent.
The way it works is relatively simple. Essentially, Chinese loans at relatively low cost are made available to public and private borrowers to embark upon specific projects, such as ports, railways and power plants. Together, it’s hoped, they will help plug the infrastructure gap that typically leaves poorer countries, such as many in Africa, lagging behind their first-world counterparts.
At least, that’s the sales pitch. To its critics, as often as not also its competitors, the BRI brings little but an absence of transparency, scant regard for human rights, environmental damage and debt traps for smaller states, struggling to repay international loans while wrestling with financial problems of their own. It’s also not even entirely clear what constitutes a BRI project, with essentially any foreign partnership with China getting caught up under its mammoth umbrella.
Irrespective, as Sudan has demonstrated, instability represents one of the most serious challenges to China’s ambitions in Africa, or anywhere else.
China’s involvement in Sudan peaked around a decade ago. Nevertheless, its commitments remain extensive. For over two decades, China has underwritten many of Sudan’s infrastructure developments. Moreover, while South Sudan may have broken away in 2011, taking with it the bulk of the oil fields that help fuel the Chinese economy, The China National Petroleum Corporation remains an ally of both states, partnering with the owners of the infrastructure and pipelines that process the oil, in Sudan, as well as the consortiums that extract it, in South Sudan.
However, buffeted by high interest rates and the political instability that led to the current conflict, the country’s finances were already on the slide. “The Sudanese economy has already been in dire straits due to political unrest and this might send the economy into even deeper trouble, and raise questions about Khartoum’s ability to repay its debts,” The Crisis Group’s Africa programme director Murithi Mutiga told the South China Morning Post.
As with many of BRI’s projects, profitability relies on stability. In this, as far as Sudan is concerned, China finds itself in alignment with both Russia and the United States, both of which have commitments to the country. The US has invested much of its diplomatic treasure, and, by extension, its President’s reputation, in building the bridges between the two warring generals of the regular army and the Rapid Support Force. Russia, for its part, has its Wagner paramilitaries actively protecting the gold shipments, now used to blunt much of the cut of Western sanctions.
“It’s about preventing contagion, as much as gaining stability,” Dr Alex Vimes, head of the Africa Programme at Chatham House said. “Mali, the Central African Republic and Libya, (all of which have ties to Sudan) are all unstable and all at risk of being pulled in,” he said, continuing to stress the implications of further escalation for China’s Belt and Road projects and infrastructure.
“China is a massive investor in the continent,” he told Byline Times. “That carries political power. You can see it in Africa’s silence on China’s actions in Hong Kong. However, that could just as easily be Africa maintaining its tradition of non-alignment,”
Contagion is key, not least in Africa. As we have seen from the upsurge in terrorist attacks and coups within the region, instability rarely respects borders, with the troubles of one state rapidly becoming the problems of its neighbours.
Tragically, as Chinese planners seek to connect the world, they connect the world.