..................DJIBOUTI — The 10:24 a.m. train out of Djibouti’s capital drew some of the biggest names in the Horn of Africa last month. Serenaded by a chorus of tribal singers, the crush of African leaders, European diplomats and pop icons climbed the stairs of the newly built train station and merrily jostled their way into the pristine, air-conditioned carriages making their inaugural run.“It is indeed a historic moment, a pride for our nations and peoples,” said Hailemariam Desalegn, the prime minister of Ethiopia, shortly before the train — the first electric, transnational railway in Africa — headed toward Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian capital. “This line will change the social and economic landscape of our two countries.”But perhaps the biggest star of the day was China, which designed the system, supplied the trains and imported hundreds of engineers for the six years it took to plan and build the 466-mile line. And the $4 billion cost? Chinese banks provided nearly all the financing.
.................But few places are being reshaped by China’s overseas juggernaut like Africa, a continent that has seen relatively little new railroad construction in a century.Despite years of steady economic growth, sub-Sahara Africa remains hobbled by an infrastructure deficit, according to the Africa Development Bank, with only half of its roads paved and nearly 600 million people lacking access to electricity.Chinese companies, many of them state-owned and grappling with an economic slowdown at home, have stepped unto the breach, spending some $50 billion a year on new ports, highways and airports across the continent, according to the China Africa Research Initiative at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.Many of the projects are part of Beijing’s new Silk Road initiative, a $1 trillion effort intended to deepen ties between China and its trading partners in the developing world.Much of that spending has been directed at rail projects that planners hope will transform the way Africans travel and do business with one another, and the rest of the world.Chinese-built and -financed projects include a two-year-old light-rail system in the Ethiopian capital; a $13 billion rail link between the Kenyan capital, Nairobi, and the port city of Mombasa that will open later this year; and an ambitious rail modernization project in Nigeria that includes an urban transit system for Lagos.
Admittedly, some of that Chinese vision does involve building African coal fired power plants (are the Chinese trying to keep their domestic coal industry running even as they reduce coal consumption at home?) and there is justifiable concern about what will happen when the loan payments come due.But contrasting Chinese far sighted vision with current American tunnel vision reminds me that the sun rises in the East.Aboubaker Omar Hadi, chairman of the Djibouti Ports and Free Zones Authority, said he hoped the new railway linking his country to the Ethiopian capital would be just the first leg of a long-dreamed trans-Africa route, from the Indian Ocean to the Atlantic.“The train is already a game-changer,” he said, noting that it will cut to 12 hours what until now had been a grueling three- or four-day trip by truck.Mr. Hadi praised the Chinese for going all in after Western banks declined to help finance the nation’s glaring infrastructure needs.“We approached the U.S., and they didn’t have the vision,” he said. “They are not thinking ahead 30 years. They only have a vision of Africa from the past, as a continent of war and famine. The Chinese have vision.”