Why Kigali lies in the path of China’s Silk Road

China’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative and the EAC are part of an ongoing story that includes an ancient shipwreck and commerce dating back to the early 15th century along the East African coast.

China defines the initiative as a “trade and infrastructure plan connecting Asia with Europe and Africa,” and is mainly two-pronged to revive and expand the ancient Silk Road trade routes.

The “Silk Road Economic Belt” (the belt) and the “21st Century Maritime Silk Road” (the road) describe the two prongs. The “belt” is a series of overland corridors connecting China with Europe through Central Asia and the Middle East.

The “road”, on the other hand, is rather a sea route linking China’s southern coast to East Africa (Kenya and Tanzania) and the Mediterranean (Egypt).

China remains Africa’s largest financier of infrastructure, and the Belt and Road Forum ended in Beijing this week with a firm pledge of a kitty of about $40 billion.

However, according to some estimates, specifically by a Fitch Ratings report released earlier this year, projects worth a whopping $900 billion have been in the planning or are already underway.

With such a figure, the initiative has the makings of being the biggest development project in history.

A much referred analysis by the global consultancy McKinsey suggests that the initiative has the potential to massively overshadow the US’ post-war Marshall reconstruction plan, involving about 65 per cent of the world’s population, one-third of its GDP and helping to move about a quarter of all its goods and services.

And, Tom Miller, author of the book, China’s Asian Dream, detailing the ambitious scheme agrees. He has variously been quoted in international media explaining how the initiative “is very significant because China is the only country that has the capacity to build infrastructure like this and the only country that is willing to do it.”

While it generally targets 60 countries mainly in Asia and Europe, with the few in Africa including Tanzania, Egypt and Kenya, others in the hinterland in Central Africa, including Rwanda, will not be left out.

The Chinese funded Standard Gauge Railway initially envisioned by Kenya, Uganda and Rwanda, in all likelihood, start from either Mombasa or Dar-es-Salaam to Kigali further economically opening up the hinterland.

Take also international firms, such as the Eurasian Resources Group whose CEO was quoted as saying the firm will directly benefit from the Chinese initiative supplying ethically-mined cobalt through its Metalkol Roan Tailings Reclamation project in the Democratic Republic of Congo, in addition to its other mining interests in the region.

But it is not without some teething problems. Concerns have already been identified that may beset the Belt and Road Initiative. One of them, as noted by The Economist, is “finding enough profitable projects to match the vaulting ambition of the scheme, which aims to create a Eurasian trading bloc rivalling the American-dominated transatlantic area.”

And, apart from the problem of scale, China’s economy is so vast and the Silk Road’s reach so broad that countries fear being overwhelmed by it. The overweening behaviour of Chinese companies in some countries where they operate has stoked fears in some places of an over-mighty China.

China is nevertheless undaunted, viewing the concerns as kinks in its longer term objective to recoup its place in global hegemony going back in history.

We cannot forget its invention of gunpowder nor its commerce through the silk-road to our very shores in East Africa.

The sunken ship is believed to have been part of a mighty armada commanded by Ming dynasty admiral Zheng He when he reached Malindi in 1418.

Starting in 1405, Zheng made seven journeys, taking in south-east Asia, India, the Middle East and Africa, in fleets of up to 300 huge ships with nearly 30,000 sailors in total, according to Chinese records.

Backed by DNA testing and archaeological evidence of Ming porcelain artifacts, communities at the Kenyan coast tell of a handful of the sunken ship’s survivors swum ashore. After killing a python that had been plaguing a village, they were allowed to stay and marry local women, creating a community of African-Chinese whose descendants still live in the area.