China poised to control Africa’s Tazara Railway despite geopolitical tensions over control of mining trade routes

by MMC
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In a context of growing geopolitical tensions around the control of trade routes for minerals essential to AfricaChina has chosen the China Civil Engineering Construction Corporation (CCECC) to negotiate a concession for the operation of the Tanzania-Zambia railway line.

It should provide a much-needed lifeline to almost all 50 years Railway, also known as Tazara, which was initially funded by Mao Zedong’s government as a foreign aid project.

CCECC, a subsidiary of China Railway Construction Corporation, is expected to negotiate a public-private partnership concession in the form of a build-operate-transfer model with Tanzania and Zambia to operate Tazara. There are also plans to upgrade the railway – which Chinese President Xi Jinping has called “a symbol of China-Africa friendship” – at an estimated cost of $1 billion.

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Last month, the Tanzania-Zambia Railway Authority announced the news, saying that Chinese investors and the CCECC were poised to play a significant role, and that the company’s proposal was therefore “expected imminently”.

Observers said the financing of the railway demonstrated Beijing’s keen interest in using Tazara for mining exports from Zambia and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Competition in the region with the EU and the United States has recently intensified as the race for critical minerals used in the production of electric vehicle batteries warms up.

Tim Zajontz, professor of global political economy at the University of Fribourg, said that while the Chinese consortium would commit to investing in Tazara’s ailing infrastructure and insufficient rolling stock, it was not about a helping mission.

“Chinese investors made it clear in previous negotiations that Tazara was no longer considered an aid project but should be a commercially viable enterprise,” said Zajontz, who is also a researcher at the Center in international and comparative politics from the University of Washington. Stellenbosch University.

Aly-Khan Satchu, a sub-Saharan Africa geoeconomic analyst, said the Tanzanian and Zambian governments appeared to be seeking a major overhaul of the railway and were happy to concede operation of the line to the private sector.

“So I expect a revamp, to operate as a dealership for a significant period of time,” Satchu said.

He also highlighted Xi’s keen interest in Tazara’s renovation.

“This railway is a symbol of China-Africa history and President Xi understands the power of this narrative,” Satchu said.

Xi had promised to renovate the railway during his Tanzanian counterpart Samia Suluhu Hassan’s visit to China last year and during Zambian President Hakainde Hichilema’s visit in September.

“China is willing to support the modernization and transformation of the Tanzania-Zambia railway in line with the principles of commodification and commercialization,” Xi said during his meeting with Hichilema.

Tazara is part of the DNA of China-Africa relations, often used to emphasize that China’s relations with Africa are based on equality, solidarity and anti-imperialism, said Zajontz, whose next book, The political economy of Chinese infrastructure development in Africacovers the case of the Tazara privatization project.

“Despite official rhetoric, Beijing also has strong geoeconomic interests in the rehabilitation of Tazara, which would improve the performance of the Dar es Salaam corridor, particularly for mining exports from Zambia and the Democratic Republic of Congo.”

When China’s involvement in the Tazara Railway began in the 1970s, under Mao’s leadership, the country faced its own financial difficulties.

Meanwhile, Zambia was desperate for a rail link to the Tanzanian coast for its main export, copper. Neighboring white-controlled Rhodesia – now Zimbabwe – had cut off Zambia’s only route to the sea in response to the transfer of power to the black majority.

Both the United States and Russia refused to fund a new railway, so China stepped in, building Tazara for about a billion yuan, or billions of U.S. dollars at current rates.

The entrance to Tazara Memorial Park in Zambia’s Lusaka province, built in honor of Chinese nationals who died during the construction of the railway line in the 1970s. Photo: Xinhua alt=The entrance at the Tazara Memorial Park in Zambia’s Lusaka province, built in honor of Chinese nationals who died during the construction of the railway line in the 1970s. Photo: Xinhua>

From 1970 to 1975, as many as 50,000 Chinese workers were deployed to build the 1,860 km (1,155 miles) of railway stretching from Zambia’s copper belt to the Tanzanian port of Dar es Salaam, on the Indian Ocean.

It remains China’s largest overseas project to this day and succeeded in strengthening Beijing’s political capital during the Cold War.

However, the American embassy in Zambia said in a post on million dollars for “new locomotives and rolling stock” as well as “major technical works”. assistance”.

“Tazara never reached its full potential,” the embassy wrote Thursday. “By the end of 1978, only two trains were running daily.”

“In the 1980s, the United States joined its international partners in responding to Zambia and Tanzania’s request to rehabilitate Tazara, with the U.S. government providing more than $27 million through the USAID,” adds the text.

Zajontz said the embassy post was a prime example of how “great powers” ​​were competing for public opinion across Africa.

“Everyone who knows anything about Tazara knows that it will eventually be privatized and that the Chinese will not allow a non-Chinese company to run it – for obvious historical reasons,” Zajontz said.

He said the tweet showed how “desperate” China and the West were by highlighting how much they had invested in African infrastructure initiatives.

The upgrade of Tazara comes as the European Union and the United States announced they would finance the construction of a railway linking Zambia’s copper belt to an existing line leading to the Angolan port of Lobito. They will also develop the Lobito Transport Corridorwhich will connect the interior of southern DRC and northwest Zambia to regional and global trade markets via the Angolan port city.

Interest in Central African countries dates back to vital minerals in the manufacture of electric batteries, including cobalt which comes from the DRC and Zambia. Chinese companies have made huge investments in both countries.

“The United States wants to put something on the board and this Lobito corridor is a relatively small investment – ​​but the United States is a Johnny-come-lately and woefully late,” Satchu said.

Zajontz said the West wanted to control its own transportation routes in the region.

“The US and EU want to avoid a situation in which Chinese transportation or logistics companies could disrupt critical value chains if incentivized as part of geopolitical escalations,” Zajontz said.

“For Beijing, the recent announcement of Western investment along the Lobito Corridor has certainly increased the geopolitical incentive to invest in and exploit Tazara.”

Emmanuel Matambo, research director at the Center for Africa-China Studies at the University of Johannesburg, said China understood the ideological and intangible value of Tazara and that “the concession will not impose high demands, if at all.” everything, to Zambia and Tanzania.”

As a landlocked country, Zambia in particular has struggled to effectively use its neighbors’ seaports and China is aware of this, he said. “The Tazara is more than a railway; it embodies China’s long-standing solidarity with the developing world.”

Matambo added that unlike Tanzania where the ruling party had a firm grip on power, Zambia was more open politically and China wanted to retain Zambia’s friendship through leadership changes. Helping in concrete ways, such as relaunching Tazara, would strengthen China’s image in the eyes of Zambians, he said.

This article was originally published in the South China Morning Post (SCMP), the most authoritative voice in reporting on China and Asia for more than a century. For more SCMP stories, please explore the SCMP application or visit the SCMP Facebook And Twitter pages. Copyright © 2023 South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.

Copyright (c) 2023. South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.

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