Big opportunities in China’s 21st Century Silk Road strategy

By John Nyogot

China’s National People’s Congress, the highest organ of state in the world’s most populous nation and second (and growing) biggest economy, recently held two annual sessions in Beijing.

The 12th NPC Congress was presided over by Chinese President Xi Jinping, in his capacity as General Secretary of the Communist Party of China. It was keenly monitored by the foreign policy and economic establishments of other nations, including Kenya’s.

Among many other strategic measures, including bold reform initiatives, the NPC spelt out a plank of China’s foreign policy known as “One Belt One Zone Policy”. This involves the New Silk Road Economy Zone, including the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road, which links to the Kenyan port of Mombasa, among many other ports on at least three continents, in a vast trading region, with great impacts on sub-global interaction. The name of the project, encompassing both its land and maritime aspects, is the Silk Road Economic Belt.

Although it is largely still in its concept stage, Kenyans, especially on the Coast, would do well to pay maximum attention to, and seize, the enormous opportunities offered by the Maritime Silk Road initiative. As a development and governance mode, this initiative has profound lessons and can open up vast vistas for Kenya.

Historically, the term Silk Road is descriptive of trade routes, both continental and maritime, between East and West, but their impacts go far beyond these regions and impact on North and South too, as well as South and South. The Silk Road of history was the series of trade routes, both land and water, that extended all the way from Europe, via Egypt, the Arabian Peninsula, Iran, Central Asia, the Philippines and Vietnam and onwards to China.

The maritime Silk Route featured some of the most famous ports in the world.

The Silk Road was both a trade and cultural interaction phenomenon connecting East and West across many epochs, beginning two centuries before Christ and driven by the highly lucrative trade in Chinese silk.

The original Silk Road was key to the development of at least four civilizations – Chinese, Indian, Persian, Arabian and European.

China’s 21st Century Maritime Silk Road is likely to develop as a vast, intercontinental, multi-modal transport system networking national and regional economies on one of the world’s biggest sub-global trade routes. Across the centuries, the ancient Silk Road actually reached Somalia and Mombasa.

Indeed, the great Chinese navigator Zheng He visited Mombasa and Lamu, circa 1415. Next year will be the 600th anniversary of his voyage to our shores. The 21st Century maritime Silk Road will enable the Chinese people to rediscover Kenya and Kenyans to discover China.

With the ongoing development of Kenya’s gateway transportation infrastructure projects, particularly the Lamu Port, South Sudan and Ethiopia Transport Corridor (LAPSETT) and single-gauge railway projects, this country is poised to benefit massively from China’s 21st Century maritime Silk Road strategy. Kenya is well-placed to become the trade and tourism gateway to the region over the next several years. The Port of Mombasa is uniquely placed to serve a region that has become resource-rich over the last few years, with oil, natural gas water and other extractive hydrocarbon riches discovered in Uganda, Tanzania and Kenya (the giant water aquifer in Turkana which experts estimate can serve the next three generations all the way to the 2080s). In the transport sector, new airports, the multinational railway project and the commissioning and privatization of the new berths at Mombasa (Berth 19 has been launched, another four are scheduled) and redevelopment of the Old Port are well beyond the drawing-board stage.

In the energy sector, the Nairobi-Mombasa pipeline, the Western pipeline, and the giant LAPSETT projects will give Kenya an unprecedented regional footprint.

China’s Silk Road Economic Belt will have an outreach and impacts far beyond Asia and Europe and Kenya needs to reposition itself accordingly. Even though still at the concept stage, this brilliant foreign policy and trade initiative will move fast and furious, once it reaches action and implementation. As Professor Zhao Huangsheng, Director of the Centre for Russia and Central Asia Studies, Fudan University, Shanghai, emphasized in a wide-ranging interview on the initiative in December 2013, “China has signed 11 free trade zone agreements with 19 countries and regions, and another 7 free trade zone agreements are in process of negotiation with 23 more countries”.

China is the driver of the greatest explosion of South-South commerce between developing countries ever attempted, and Sino-Africa trade and investment are some of the most mutually beneficial development partnerships and paradigms in history. Kenya should seize the opportunity of learning from the Chinese Silk Road’s maritime aspect and adopting and adapting it to our regional requirements, challenges and opportunities.

John Nyogot comments of topical national and international issues

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