An airport in Sierra Leone and a port in Tanzania — both projects are part of China’s global Belt and Road Initiative, and both countries have halted the projects amid cost and sovereignty concerns.

China’s Belt and Road Initiative is aimed at re-creating and expanding the famed Silk Road trade routes that connected China to the world through infrastructure and development projects. However, critics point out that many projects are funded by unsustainable debt, infringe on the host country’s sovereignty, and hurt the environment.

“Beijing’s deals come not with strings attached, but with shackles,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in June.

A 2019 report from the Center for a New American Security, a research organization, looked at 10 specific Chinese investment projects, ranging from a space complex in Argentina to the Haifa Port expansion in Israel, and found a host of concerns, including loss of control, debt and corruption.

Concerns about debt and viability were among the reasons Sierra Leone decided last year to cancel the $300 million Mamamah International Airport project, which was to be financed with Chinese loans and built by a Chinese firm, saying it was “uneconomical to proceed with the construction.” The World Bank had also expressed concerns about the project’s cost and commercial viability.

In Tanzania, the government indefinitely suspended plans to have China build the Bagamoyo Port, out of concerns about Tanzanian sovereignty. China wants “us to give them a guarantee of 33 years and a lease of 99 years,” Tanzanian President John Magufuli told a group of investors in June.

Scrolling list of active OPIC projects in Africa (State Dept.)
Source: U.S. Overseas Private Investment Corporation projects, as of 2018 (State Dept.)

A better alternative

The United States offers development aid that doesn’t leave countries saddled with unsustainable debt, erode national sovereignty or ruin the environment.

“We hope to extend our economic partnerships with countries who are committed to self-reliance and to fostering opportunities for job creation in both Africa and the United States,” President Trump said when he introduced his Africa Strategy last year.

Through Prosper Africa, a new presidential initiative, the United States is supporting U.S. investment across the African continent to improve the business climate and accelerate the growth of Africa’s middle class.

For example, the U.S. has invested in mobile networks across Africa, a local diamond industry in Botswana and a rebuilt tea processing facility in Rwanda. The Power Africa initiative has attracted more than $18 billion in financing and brought access to electricity to more than 57 million people in sub-Saharan Africa.

These are among the scores of U.S.-backed projects across Africa.

“Too often, [foreign loans] come with strings attached and lead to staggering debt,” Vice President Pence said when discussing developing countries at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Summit last year. “We don’t drown our partners in a sea of debt. We don’t coerce or compromise your independence.”