African countries bid for ‘anchor points’ in China’s billion-dollar Silk Road plan— it could set off 'mini battles'

Togo latest nation to pitch as Asian giant builds a trade web around Europe and Africa in bid for geopolitical power

TOGO president Faure Gnassingbe has offered his country as the West African staging point for China’s Silk Road initiative, as countries on the continent begin to warm up to the Asian giant’s plan to be a major geopolitical player.

“Togo intends to be the anchor point in West Africa for the New Silk Road initiative supported by China and which is based on ties between countries through land and maritime infrastructures,” Gnassingbe said in an interview with Chinese state news agency Xinhua in the capital Lome.

“Where your heart is, your feet are not reluctant to go.”

The 49-year old is in China for a state visit at the invitation of his counterpart, president Xi Jinping. He is reportedly accompanied by a 30-strong delegation of businessmen who will take part in an economic forum dedicated to Togo.

Gnassingbe said his country “possesses many advantages to serve as a gateway” for West Africa, he said, including its geography.

China has for the last decade been highly visible in building Togolese infrastructure from roads and rail to ports, and Gnassingbe said he wanted to further strengthen the bilateral relationship. Lome recently issued a communiqué essentially supporting Beijing’s claim to the South China Sea, which is disputed by among other countries Vietnam and the Philippines.

Togo is hoping to develop a corridor that will help improve the competitiveness of its economy and make it the logistics hub for West Africa, and which would make it attractive to China’s Silk Road project.

Last January, shipping line MSC launched an 11-vessel service via Port of Lome to and from Asia. Seaintel data suggests that this has significantly “ramped up” large scale West African transshipment traffic over the past year.

Xi’s main project

The “One Belt, One Road” (OBOR) initiative, which comprises the Silk Road Economic Belt and the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road, is aimed at building a trade and infrastructure network connecting Asia with Europe and Africa along the ancient Silk Road routes—a quiltwork of paths and sea lanes that carried trade goods ranging from silk to spices and metals.

Announced in 2013, it is easily the overriding project for president Xi and sees the Asian country become a global powerhouse by 2049, when the People’s Republic marks its 100th birthday.

While it has been more avidly sold in Eurasia, only now is it starting to become apparent how the Maritime arm of the strategy that branches in Africa’s direction will shape up. 

Early signs are that the use of sea-lanes and the investment of billions into deep-water ports along the continent’s Indian ocean seaboard and along the Horn of Africa will create paths for Chinese goods, technology and firms, helping swell its export markets.

The new trade routes, markets and energy sources would help grow its economy.  Due to the downturn in its growth as it rebalances its economy, China has upped the pace of implementation.

China is currently set for a military base in the strategically located nation of Djibouti.  Packaged as a logistics base, it has all the signs of the Road clicking into gear.

This month the country agreed to build Sudan’s first atomic reactor, as it looks to expand its technological footprint abroad.

“The agreement is a step forward for China’s grand ‘One Belt, One Road’ plan to export technology, including nuclear power and high-speed railway technologies, to African and European nations,” Shi Yan, a Shanghai-based analyst at UOB-Kay Hian, told Bloomberg news agency by phone. 

The export of nuclear reactors is seen as a key pillar towards executing the plan, which according to the UN covers over 4 billion people and 55% of the world’s economic output—and 75% of known energy reserves.


Some four countries are currently home to Chinese nuclear ambitions, as this infographic from the Mercator Institute for China Studies shows.

Because it will finance most of the infrastructure projects, it will also be able to increase its political influence along the planned routes, analysts say.

This has seen many countries in the region ramp up their interest in being pillars for the plan, which would be financed from among other sources the Silk Road Fund, which was launched in November 2014 with a stated kitty of $40 billion.

African nations are among the at least 60 countries that have reportedly signed bilateral deals of intent to partner with China on the plan, according to deputy foreign minister Quian Hongshen.

Africa’s west

A study of the Silk Road as planned shows it is thin on the continent’s western seaboard and in northern Africa, and countries there have been keen from the outset to angle for a piece of the plan.

In December 2015, during the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation where the project was sold to officials, Morocco’s leader also pitched for a role.

“I would like… to commend President Xi Jinping on the Silk Road Economic Belt and the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road initiatives he has launched,” King Mohammed VI said in his speech to the summit in Johannesburg.

“Given its geographical location, the Kingdom of Morocco could play a constructive role in extending the Maritime Silk Road, not only to ‘Atlantic Europe’, but also and especially to West Africa nations, with whom my country has multi-dimensional ties.”

Battle for regional influence?

In his speech at a recent mega-economic conference in Yaounde, Cameroon president Paul Biya billed his country’s strategic position at the crossroads between West and Central Africa, in addition to its coastline in his pitch to investors, who also included Chinese representatives.

There are at least five ports on Africa’s western coastline that have some form of Chinese involvement and which are considered strategic by Beijing, according to the plan. These include those in Tunisia, Senegal, Gabon and Ghana.

With a number of Central African countries either building brand new ports or upgrading local infrastructure, Beijing should not be surprised at being propositioned into extending its maritime plans into Central Africa. 

Cameroon’s new deepwater Kribi port is being built by China. Tunisia’s listing may also have informed the Moroccan monarch’s pitch, and the route’s development could set up the continent for mini races for regional influence.

—Additional news context from Xinhua.

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