This week was dominated by the launch of the second phase of Kenya’s Standard Gauge Railway (SGR), from the port of Mombasa to the Rift Valley town of Naivasha. While the second phase is linked to a future industrial development zone, the SGR will only start pulling its full economic weight when it connects to Uganda and beyond. However, China has refused to fund the crucial third phase that would have linked it to the Ugandan border, requesting expanded feasibility studies.
The SGR has real potential to boost economic growth in entire East African region, but it faces many hurdles. This leaves commentators to dismiss the Mombasa-Naivasha phase as a ‘railroad to nowhere’ (see the Bloomberg story below), as concern grows about its impact on Kenya’s ballooning debt.
The SGR is important for East Africa, but it is also a symbolic Belt and Road project. Its future success or failure can’t but be seen as an indicator of the success of the BRI’s lofty vision. As competitors like Japan present alternatives to the BRI, and China’s own economy changes, we will look to places like Africa to chart BRI’s fortunes.
Infrastructure is a major driver of Chinese soft power on the continent. However, it is only one of several. China is playing a long soft power game on many African fronts at once. The commercial success of Chinese mobile phones, and the power of having future African leaders study in China are both potent vectors for soft power, a point seemingly missed by many Western governments.
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