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G7 needs to learn from China, if it's going to succeed in pushing back China’s BRI

China's BRI initiative is set to pump up to $1.3 trillion into infrastructure projects in over 100 emerging economies by 2027, powering the emergence of a global order in which China lies at the centre of a new constellation of geopolitical power.

June 19, 2021 / 10:44 AM IST
The G7 summit was held at Carbis Bay Hotel, a seaside resort in Cornwall, UK, from June 11-13. (Image: AP)

The G7 summit was held at Carbis Bay Hotel, a seaside resort in Cornwall, UK, from June 11-13. (Image: AP)


Lined up in full ceremonial dress one muggy morning in 1970, the band pounded out a revolutionary ditty: “Fish cannot leave the water”, it went, “nor melons leave the vines; making revolution depends on Mao Zedong Thought”. In 1965, twelve Chinese surveyors had set off from the small Tanzanian town of Kidatu, their supplies slung on their backs, marking the route to the Zambia with little red flags. Now, the first of some 13,500 technical experts and workers had massed in Dar-es-Salaam, brought in to pave the path the surveyors marked with concrete and steel.

Ten years later, the 1,860 kilometre Great Freedom Railway—arguably the greatest engineering effort since the Second World War—was complete, two years ahead of schedule, running from the coast past the great Selous game park, crossing Mlimba, the Kingdom of Elephants, and Makambako, the Place of Bulls and on to the Kipengere mountains.

Eighty-nine million cubic metres of earth and rock, eight kilometres of tunnel, 320 bridges: these, and wild animals, claimed the lives of at least 160 workers, 64 of them Chinese.

2009 photo of the Tanzania-Zambia Great Freedom (Uhuru) Railway, originally built in the 1970s with the help of the Chinese government. (Photo: Willem Augustyn via Wikimedia Commons CC 2.0) 2009 photo of the Tanzania-Zambia Great Freedom (Uhuru) Railway, originally built in the 1970s with the help of the Chinese government. (Photo: Willem Augustyn via Wikimedia Commons CC 2.0)

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Last week, leaders of the Group of Seven (G7) industrialised countries, led by the United States’ President Joe Biden, announced a new plan to push back against China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). The BRI is set to pump up to $1.3 trillion into infrastructure projects in over 100 emerging economies by 2027, powering the emergence of a global order in which China lies at the centre of a new constellation of geopolitical power. For India, and other countries along China’s borders that are anxious about its growing military power, the challenge to the BRI is good news.

The reality, though, is less than advertised. The G7 plan is—so far—made up of words, not cash. The G7 communique is replete with expansive commitments—among them, a promise “to strengthen partnerships with developing countries and help meet their infrastructure needs”—but notably short of detail on exactly who will pay how much, and when.

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Earlier pushbacks have, notably, come to nothing. “In one notorious example from 2018,” scholar James Crabtree has noted, “then (US) secretary of state Mike Pompeo pledged to create a new fund to push back against China, but managed to find only a paltry $113 million to put in it.” In 2019, US President Donald Trump again promised to route $60 billion through the United States International Development Finance Corporation; the results have not been luminous.

The story of the Tanzania-Zambia Great Freedom Railway holds out important lessons for G7 leaders. China has—for decades—adroitly used aid as a means to secure geopolitical leverage, often ignoring purely economic considerations. Its successes, moreover, have often been the result of gaps created by Western reluctance.

From as early as 1946, Mao Zedong hypothesised that the global order would contain an “intermediate zone” of countries which sought autonomy from both the United States and Soviet Union-led blocs. These countries in Africa, Latin America, and Asia, he believed, would be critical to China maintaining its strategic autonomy.

The scholar Victor Vieira has shown that, from as early as 1958, China was providing significant aid to the developing world, providing some $293 million to Algeria and Egypt. The largest of these grants was made in 1964, with $530 million being provided to Tanzania, as a result of Chinese minister Zhou Enlai’s visit to several African nation-states. People’s Liberation Army (PLA) personnel trained and equipped Tanzania’s military, provided desperately needed rural medical aid—and made infrastructure investments on a scale no other country would do.

Eight principles of aid were announced, which distinguished Chinese aid programmes sharply from those of the United States and Soviet Union. Among other things, Beijing committed to train local staff in all project-related technologies; more importantly, Chinese technical experts were only allowed “the same standard of living as the experts of the recipient country” and barred from “any special amenities”.

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The idea of a rail line connecting Zambia’s copper mines with the ports of East Africa had been around since the 19th century. Few investors, however, believed the project would be viable. In 1952, a study by the British engineering consultants Sir Alexander Gibb and Partners concluded existing rail lines through Angola and Mozambique would meet demand. A World Bank study, completed in 1964—just as China’s surveyors were heading out into rural Tanzania—argued that a Zambia-Tanzania railway would only carry some 87,000 tons of cargo by 2000, nowhere near enough.

In November, 1965, though, Southern Rhodesia’s white-supremacist government seceded from the United Kingdom, and threatened Zambia’s access to the sea. For months, supplies had to be airlifted, or transported some 1,600 kilometres over a poor-quality road.

Hugh Peyman and Richard Hall’s magisterial history of the Great Freedom Railway records that Tanzanian Prime Minister Julius Nyerere warned the West he now had no option but to turn to China. The United Kingdom’s Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, was convinced China just could not afford the project—and ignored the appeal.

The record of the Great Freedom Railway showed the sceptics were right. Freight peaked at 1.2 million tons in 1986, well below the design capacity of 5 million tons. The railway has faced a succession of liquidity crises, and required multiple bailouts. In 2017—even as China celebrated the 40th anniversary of its engineering achievement—a Zambian committee of Parliament called for the railway company to be restructured, so as to end its addiction to government bailouts.

Yet, the project brought significant gains for China. Beijing was able to establish itself as a reliable partner for regimes across Africa, and developed relationships with a new generation of post-colonial politicians who are at the cutting edge of political power today. Perhaps most important, it allowed China to embed itself in popular imagination as a new kind of partner, free of the painful baggage of colonialism.

“For many of these younger African men,” Jamie Monson writes of workers on the project, “building the railway is remembered as a coming of age experience, a time of moving into adulthood under the guidance of their Chinese leaders. Many recall the experience of earning a wage, learning the Chinese language and mastering railway technology as a liberating entrance into a modern, post-colonial world.”

From the 1980s on, China’s rapprochement with the United States, and Paramount Leader Deng Xiaoping’s ‘Four Modernisations’ policy of market reforms, led the country to become primarily a recipient of international aid. Yet, its engagement with developing countries did not end. Learning from Japan, China slowly reoriented its aid to focus on economically viable projects, with the private sector playing a greater role. The foundations for the model seen through the BRI years was slowly established.

Like in 1960s and 1970s, China’s foreign projects are not only about money. They are measured, also, by the strategic ends they serve. Beijing understands many of the high-risk investments it has made in BRI may not prove viable; their real justification is in giving the country insulation against the hegemony of the West.

For the G7’s plans to work, there must be a clear-eyed realisation among Western leaders that infrastructure development cannot be judged by economic outcomes alone; geopolitics and wealth have, and always will be, inextricably enmeshed. The major Western economies, moreover, have no armies of workers or state-backed enterprises who can execute basic infrastructure development in hazardous parts of the world. G7 leaders will thus have to craft strategies that can use the strengths and resources of countries like India.

The decisions G7 leaders make will decide the shape of the future world order. Technological and military supremacy will not alone secure the United States’ global primacy. Like all great powers past, it will need to expend cash and sweat.

Read more: The art and craft of political slogans
Praveen Swami

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