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Washington Is Missing the Point on Alternatives to the Belt and Road Initiative

Any alternative corridor (like IMEC) is likely to leverage BRI hubs and completed projects – thus making them complementary rather than competing initiatives. U.S. officials have criticized China's Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) since 2013, citing geopolitical concerns. However, corridors like the India-Middle East-Europe Economic Corridor (IMEC) and the Lobito Corridor in Africa show that these initiatives often build on BRI infrastructure. For instance, IMEC uses BRI logistics hubs like COSCO Shipping's terminal in UAE's Khalifa Port and Piraeus Port in Greece. Similarly, the Lobito Corridor, part of the Partnership for Global Infrastructure and Investment (PGII), benefits from the Benguela Railroad in Angola, reopened with a $362 million Chinese loan. These examples highlight that U.S.-backed projects often enhance rather than compete with the BRI, suggesting a need for Washington to recalibrate its strategy towards cooperation with Beijing's initiative.



Source: The Diplomat


Authors: Zenel Garcia & Alex Marino


U.S. officials have been critical of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) since its announcement in 2013. Washington’s concern stems from a flawed zero-sum assumption that the BRI accords Beijing with geopolitical leverage at the United States’ expense. This concern has resulted in the mobilization of the “debt-trap” discourse, which, despite a lack of empirical evidence, President Joe Biden has regularly utilized when promoting alternative corridors to the BRI. 


However, U.S. officials continue to overlook that any alternative corridor is likely to leverage BRI hubs and completed projects – thus making them complementary rather than competing initiatives. This is a view shared among countries that these alternative corridors will traverse. This dynamic is evident in corridors that Washington seeks to support, such as the India-Middle East-Europe Economic Corridor (IMEC) and the Lobito Corridor.


Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced IMEC at the G-20 Leaders Summit in 2023. The meeting produced a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) signed by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, the European Union, France, Germany, Italy, India, and the United States. According to the MoU, IMEC consists of two corridors: an eastern corridor connecting India to the Arabian Gulf and a northern corridor connecting the Arabian Gulf to Europe. This initiative links India to the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Israel, and finally, to Europe. 


 

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However, its proposed routes illustrate its complementarity to existing BRI investment in the region. The key logistics hubs that IMEC aims to capitalize on are hubs where China has become a pivotal investor


For example, COSCO Shipping, a Chinese state-owned enterprise (SOE), operates a terminal in the Khalifa Port in UAE, holds 67 percent of the shares in Piraeus Port in Greece, and holds another 60 percent of shares in Piraeus Europe Asia Rail Logistics, which moves goods out of the port to the rest of Europe and Asia. In fact, COSCO Shipping operates a shipping line connecting India’s own eastern ports to Europe. 

Furthermore, several Chinese SOEs, such as the China State Construction Engineering Corporation and the China Railway Construction Corporation, played a key role in the construction of the UAE’s national Etihad Rail system, which connects its ports and cities to Saudi Arabia. This is a system that IMEC proponents hope to utilize for part of the northern corridor. 


These far from exhaustive examples of the Chinese SOE footprint in the region indicate that any new economic corridor linking the Middle East and Europe is likely to benefit from existing BRI projects. This is something that host countries understand and are actively leveraging to promote local development and regional economic integration. In other words, while Washington may promote IMEC as a BRI alternative, it is unlikely that Middle Eastern countries view it this way, especially since several of them are formal members of the BRI. 


These patterns are also evident in the Lobito Corridor in Africa. 


The Biden administration and G-7 leaders designed the Lobito Corridor Project as part of wider plans to strengthen Western ties to Central Africa through mineral supply chains. The first Memorandum of Understanding was signed on the sidelines of the U.S.-Africa Leaders’ Summit in 2022 between the United States, Zambia, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. 


Officially a part of the Partnership for Global Infrastructure and Investment (PGII), the goal of the Lobito Corridor Project is to connect mining sites in DRC and Zambia to the Atlantic Ocean port of Lobito in Angola. The DRC and Zambia collectively contain the world’s largest deposit of cobalt and are leading producers of copper, precisely the minerals needed to build the electric car batteries, heat pumps, and car chargers needed for countries to meet the renewable energy goals promised at the COP28 Summit in 2023. 


The PGII’s proposed connectivity projects in Central Africa will essentially reopen what was once the central transportation hub in the region until fighting in the Angolan Civil War cut the Benguela Railroad in 1975. Reopening this corridor is of huge interest by the three countries involved, with the hope that improved interconnectivity will bring strong job growth to communities along the transportation network. 


The Washington-backed Lobito Corridor Project is only viable due to China’s considerable investments in the region, including the BRI. U.S.-financed projects will send Zambian and Congolese ores to the Atlantic port of Lobito in Angola on the tracks of the Benguela Railroad, which re-opened in 2019 with the help of a $362 million loan from China


Currently, Central Africa’s mines send most of their ores to the global economy through the Tazara Railroad, built by China in the 1970s to allow Copperbelt minerals to reach the Indian Ocean without traveling through white-minority governments in Zimbabwe (then Rhodesia) and Mozambique (then a Portuguese colony). Proposed American and G-7 connectivity projects in the DRC, Angola, and Zambia will also benefit this eastern route, which China has recently announced will receive a modernization project funded by the China Development Bank. In fact, American and Chinese infrastructure projects in Central Africa are designed in a very complementary fashion, working together to send critical minerals to manufacturing centers along the shores of the Atlantic, Indian, and Pacific Oceans.


These two corridors illustrate that Washington’s zero-sum interpretation of the BRI is flawed. This offers an opportunity for U.S. officials to recalibrate their approach toward the BRI. As U.S. firms and banks are already directly and indirectly invested in the BRI, a coherent engagement policy with Beijing’s initiative is likely to produce three net positives. 


First, it provides an avenue for cooperation between the two powers. This is increasingly needed given the poor state of the bilateral relation. 


Second, it presents Washington with an official mechanism for shaping the implementation of the BRI by having a seat at the table and by facilitating participant countries’ efforts to exercise their agency. This is feasible due to the fragmented nature of the BRI. 


Third, it helps participant countries’ development strategies by making capital more accessible. This is important given that development is a key factor in promoting national and regional stability, something that benefits U.S. interests. 


Zenel Garcia is an associate professor of Security Studies in the Department of National Security and Strategy at the U.S. Army War College. His research focuses on the intersection of international relations theory, security, and geopolitics in the Indo-Pacific and Eurasia. 


Alex Marino is a post-doctoral fellow in Civil-Military Relations in the Department of National Security and Strategy at the U.S. Army War College. His research focuses on comparative civil-military relations and the role of technology in U.S.-Africa relations.

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The Lobito Corridor Investment Promotion Authority ("LCIPA" or "the IPA") is a permanent multi-stakeholder engagement agency tasked to link all public and private entities interested in advancing and participating in the Lobito Corridor. Its main goals are to maximize and promote trade, investment, and economic integration among and between the three African nations of Angola, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Zambia. 

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