The China-driven superproject, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which is a conceptual redevelopment of the ancient global tradeways of the Silk Road, aims to link the heartlands of countries by land, sea and air routes, says Renmin University School of International Studies academic Professor Wang Yiwei.
Starting with the Chinese heartland provinces, the initiative intends to spearhead development through the largest landlocked country, Kazakhstan, and then on towards Russia and Europe, as well as to India, the Middle East and Africa, and along existing regional air and sea trade routes in Asia, he says.
The development of a series of economic and mobility corridors is also part of a realignment and rebalancing of global trade and business ties and seeks to place China at the heart of the BRI, he explains.
University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) deputy vice chancellor Professor Zeblon Vilakazi says the One Belt, One Road initiative, as it is also known, is part of a wave of Chinese outward investment framed as an overland industrial corridor to enhance connections between Asia, Europe and Africa and form a transregional trading system, with Africa as one of the hubs.
There are a range of challenges and opportunities presented by the megaproject, especially for Africa, but countries and blocs must ensure they effectively negotiate, leverage and align such a project to their own and collective developmental objectives.
Kenyan development economist and independent consultant Anzetse Were cites examples of challenges and opportunities, including that investment in Africa as part of the initiative would be focused on East Africa, owing to its node position along the trade routes, and that skewed investment flows might cause tension between countries in the region.
Nonetheless, there is a need for regional blocs to establish firm collective negotiating positions to ensure they can include their own infrastructure and developmental objectives in the short- and long-term plans.
“If not carefully managed, the BRI could be another conduit for expensive infrastructure and saddle poor regions with debt. “African governments will have to negotiate cost-efficient financing based on their own goals and plans.”
Competition is another challenge, and African private-sector companies might be displaced by more efficient international entrants unless the skills and the use of relevant equipment and new technologies are in place to enable effective competition, Were says.
“Africa needs to leverage the BRI to improve export penetration and upskill and capacitate local firms to move up the value chain. “Issues of protection must be addressed, including how to protect key local industries until they are capable of competing on a global level, similar to the Asian miracle economies,” she adds.
The opportunities presented by the BRI include, besides others, better integration of local enterprises into local, regional and global supply and value chains, enterprise development, growth, continuous local participation in infrastructure development and faster infrastructure development.
Perceptions and Practice The
University of Tshinghua Carnegie-Tshingua Centre3 for Global Policy’s Professor Tang Xiaoyang highlights skills transfer patterns and notes that the topic is important for the broader BRI, as it is aimed at promoting development, especially industrial development, along the routes.
Noting the different training and knowledge transfer models, including vertical interindustry value chain training and horizontal industry-specific training, he highlights the practical training model, called learning by working, that was used in Ethiopia to improve its textile manufacturing, which saw employees trained by foreign partner firms.
However, while this model did support growth in industrial and export activity in Ethiopia, it is important to ensure that the skills learned are those expected or required by the employer, which, in some cases, causes the skills transfer to be viewed as ineffective, said Tang.
Other shortcomings of practical training skills transfers include that it may take up to five years for a person to learn a trade, and employment churn and movements lead to lost training investments.
Meanwhile, Wits Spatial Analysis and City Planning South African research chair Professor Philip Harrison notes that a project as bold as the BRI evokes fascination and anxiety, and adds that China is conscious of how the initiative is perceived.
Reflecting on different perceptions of Chinese global political and trade relations, Tang says: “The BRI is based on China’s own successful development model, which informs the engagements with our trade and development partners. “The ‘no strings attached’ policy does not mean that China does not propose various training and infrastructure development models, but rather that it does not impose any political requirements on the partner country.
“Multiparty democracy was not helpful for the Chinese development experience and stability was more important for its development,” he adds.
The model lifted 700-million people out of poverty over 40 years, Wang emphasises.
“Infrastructure is a precondition for industrialisation. “Infrastructure design and development based on comparative advantages and industrialisation were the way China brought hundreds of millions of people into the middle class. “The BRI is part of China’s goal of promoting industrialisation around the world. Part of the model includes industry clustering, which crowds in and accelerates investment,” he explains.
“The BRI is experimental and offers the opportunity for influence from within Africa to address concerns of competing developmental objectives around the extent of the BRI and how it will enable or inhibit progress towards developmental goals,” concludes Harrison.