Xinhua Insight: Return of maritime Silk Road does not forget Africa
2015/02/25
 

by Xinhua Writer Cheng Lu

FUZHOU, Feb. 12 (Xinhua) -- When ancient Chinese navigator Zheng He set out at the head of a large trade envoy along the first maritime trade routes during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), he made first contact with the coastal city that would eventually become the Kenyan city of Mombasa.

More than 600 years after Zheng laid the blueprint for the modern Maritime Silk Road (MSR), trade between China and Kenya continues to expand.

China is currently constructing a standard gauge rail line that will better regional connectivity and build upon Zheng's footprint further by linking Mombasa to Kenya's capital Nairobi.

Construction is ahead of schedule and will be completed in 3 years, according to Zhang Baozhong, deputy general manager of the overseas department of China Communications Construction Company Limited, whose subsidiary corporation is in charge of the project.

He made the statement during the ongoing international seminar on the modern MSR in Quanzhou City of southeast China's Fujian Province.

The new rail line will offer 30,000 jobs for residents in Kenya and the rail link will be crucial in connecting Nairobi to the maritime trade route, Zhang said.

It will eventually link Nairobi with the capitals of Uganda, Burundi, and South Sudan. Once it is completed, the rail corridor will help connect the vast hinterland of East Africa with the Indian Ocean, he said.

As China presented the idea of reviving the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road in 2013, this continental initiative is expanding beyond Asia to Africa.

In addition to Mombasa, China is also funding and developing other ports in African countries including Djibouti, Tanzania and Nigeria.

CLOSER TIES NEED BETTER INFRASTRUCTURE

Official data showed that two-way trade volume between China and Africa exceeded 220 billion U.S. dollars for the first time in 2014, and China has been Africa's largest trade partner for the past five years in a row.

The MSR, like its overland counterpart, currently emphasizes the building of infrastructure projects. In order to promote these projects, China funded the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank in addition to a separate 40 billion U.S. Silk Road Fund.

While transporting a container in a cargo ship from Shanghai to Mombasa costs less than 500 U.S. dollars, transporting it from Mombasa to Nairobi, about 500 kilometers, costs 1,500 U.S. dollars due to poor transportation methods, said Zhang Baozhong.

Better infrastructure among African countries can reduce transportation cost and boost businesses, Ding said, adding that he believes the new initiative could also bring preferential tax policies and more customers though no specific plan has been released.

CONFIDENCE DESPITE RISKS

China's Silk Road Economic Belt and 21st Century Maritime Silk Road initiatives involve several cultures and 63 percent of the world's population.

The differences in cultures, customs, policies and laws, labor markets and political environment may create stumbling blocks, but most people see it as a new chance for both China and African countries.

Bethwel Kinuthia, economist with the University of Nairobi, told Xinhua in an e-mail that it is obvious the MSR unleashes a windfall for African countries in terms of new markets for products, transfer of technology and skills as well as easier mobility.

But Kinuthia also pointed out that there are often difficulties for free flow of goods and services, including poor transport infrastructure, high energy cost that undermines manufacturing, erratic weather patterns and political uncertainties.

He said sustainability is not just a buzzword but an imperative for businessmen to cement trust with communities.

"By protecting fragile ecosystems, both the Chinese and African businessmen should minimize risks and improve their image," he said.

The MSR does not forget Africa. It provides a historical chance for countries along the route. "But it is not China's own business. It needs cooperation. Win-win situation also means do-do situation," Mohamed Noman Galal, formerEgyptian ambassador to China, told Xinhua.

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