Chinese Belt and Road Initiative: The Abuja Beijing Consensus as a Catalytic Implementation Instrument

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Ambassador Zhou Pingjian

By Bola A. Akinterinwa

The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is the newest global development strategy in international economic relations, offered in 2013 by the People’s Republic of China under the leadership of Xi Jinping to the world. It is the issue of discourse among the great leaders of the world at the moment. True, it is a development strategy whose time has come and by which several countries are beginning to define their infrastructural and investment needs.

In this regard, not less than 37 (thirty-seven) African countries, have acceded to the BRI agreement, including Nigeria. The decision of African leaders to be part of the BRI agenda was reached at the 2018 Beijing Summit of the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation FOCAC, which was established in 2006 but is also serving as one of the implementation mechanisms for the purposes of the BRI. One main rationale for the decision to be part of the BRI is essentially because of the African Union’s own agenda 2063.

It is useful at this juncture to note that the BRI is a 36-year global development agenda, covering the period from 2013 to 2049. In other words, whatever is to be done in terms of provision of infrastructure, direct investments and development assistance to any country are to be completed in 2049 by which time the Chinese will be celebrating one century of the People’s Republic of China, as well as possible ascendancy to global leadership. In the same vein, By the year 2063, the African Union will also be celebrating one hundred years of the founding of the Organisation of African Unity, created on May 25, 1963 but disbanded on July 9, 2002, under the last Chairman, Thabo Mbeki of South Africa, and transformed into the African Union.

A large part of the continental development projects contained in Agenda 2063 underscore the provision for infrastructure, energy and industrialisation deficit, trade development. It is therefore not surprising that several African leaders took active part in the deliberations of the Second Belt and Road Forum, a special implementation platform for the BRI, which took place last 25-27 April, 2019 in Beijing.

Without any whiff of doubt, there is no reason why African leaders should not be actively engaged in the BRI for one obvious consideration. As noted in ChinAfrica Newsletter, vol. 4, no. 6, May 2019, ‘in respect of overland construction, Chinese companies through concessional financial support have built Addis Ababa-Djibouti Railway in Ethiopia which is the first electrified railway in Africa; Mombasa-Nairobi Railway in Kenya; Abuja-Kaduna Railway in Nigeria and Benguela Railway in Angola, and many others, including the Lagos-Ibadan-Kano-Abuja under construction.’

Apart from this, the Chinese have, at the maritime component level, ‘constructed (the) Port of Bagamoyo in Tanzania, No. 19 berth of Port Mombasa and the Berth of Port Lamu, both in Kenya, New Port of Pointe-Noire in the Republic of Congo (Brazaville), Lekki Deep Seaport in Nigeria, Kribi Deep Seaport in Cameroon and Port of Tamatave in Madagascar.’

Ambassador Aminu Wali, former Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary Ambassador of Nigeria to China, and former Minister of Foreign Affairs of Nigeria, has also reminded us that ‘as at the end of 2016, China under the Initiative, has set up 20 industrial parks in 15 African countries, including Nigeria, with accumulated investments of 5.38 billion US dollars, attracting more than 450 enterprises with an accumulated value output of 19.35 billion US dollars that has contributed 1.62 billion US dollars to the revenues of the host countries in taxes and fees. These activities have created over 33,000 jobs and brought about industrial clustering in pertinent areas’ (vide his paper at the roundtable).

Thus, the BRI is essentially about international cooperation in the areas of infrastructure connectivity, industrial cooperation and financial integration. Perhaps more interestingly, it has been argued that the BRI has not only become a core subject of international relations and studies, but also that the central paradigm of cooperation, consultation and consensus-building of the BRI cannot but ‘struggle with the traditional theoretical approach of international studies that focus on conflict management and power politics of the so-called realist school.’ It is against this background that one should begin to explain and understand the need for holding an Abuja Beijing Consensus Roundtable, on Thursday, May 16, 2019 at the Executive Hall of the International Conference Centre, Abuja.

The roundtable, which is the first of its kind, was convened by Sam Nda-Isaiah, founder of the Leadership Group and Chairman of the Abuja Beijing Consensus and co-hosted by Dr. Zhou Pingjian, the Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary Ambassador of the People’s Republic of China to Nigeria.

The Abuja Beijing Consensus (ABC) is a newly created think tank, ‘created to harness the opportunities provided by the Nigeria-China relationship. ABC is a private initiative and a bridge builder between the Federal Republic of Nigeria and the People’s Republic of China.’ Among the main functions of the ABC are the provision for interested persons within formation about arbitration, expertise of the contracts regarding projects between local economic agents and agents from abroad upon their request, as well as organisation of training and seminars and master classes for entrepreneurs.’

The roundtable was divided into two main session during which nine papers were presented. In the first session, five discussion papers were presented in addition to the goodwill messages given by the host and co-host, Sam Nda-Isaiah and Dr. Pingjian. Four papers were presented in the second session. One observation that was made crystal clear in all the papers was the need for active Nigerian engagement in the BRI.

For instance, Ambassador Aminu Wali, has it that ‘Nigeria, as one of Africa’s largest emerging markets with a huge potential for further economic expansion, should be at the forefront for Africa’s greater engagement with the Belt and Road Initiative framework to fast-track its national development and ensure its place as the continent’s foremost economy and investment destination.’

Sam Nda-Isaiah put the need for Nigeria to be involved in the BRI this way: ‘the global economic order now points towards three fronts, and nations would have to decide which direction to take. There is the American frontier led by the United States, the European frontier headed by the European Union, and the China frontier, headed, of course, by China.’ In this regard, what is the choice for Nigeria? The Leadership group leader says ‘China is building an intimidating portfolio of friendships around the world based on win-win cooperation in infrastructure, agriculture, health care, etc. The Chinese model of engagement with others appears attractive, especially to the developing countries because it does not interfere with the internal affairs of other countries.’ Consequently, the ABC intends to be the engine and catalyst of these win-win engagements between Nigeria and China, taking into consideration that China is by far the largest investor in infrastructure in the world today.’

Honourable Yusuf Buba Yakub, Chairman House Committee on Nigeria-China Relations, House of Representatives, spoke more interestingly on why Nigeria should take the BRI seriously. In his words, ‘prior to the MoU signed in Beijing by both countries in September 2018, Nigeria had benefited considerably under the 60 billion USD FOCAC fund… BRI has opened up new spaces for global economic growth, produced new platforms for international trade and investment and offered new ways for improving global economic governance.’

Additionally, Honourable Yusuf said that ‘contrary to the aspersions of critics, BRI is solely an effort to promote economic globalisation and improve global governance system while focusing on project execution and moving forward with results-oriented implementation is anchored on people-oriented policies and seeks to address inequality crisis in developing countries.’

Consequently, he said ‘as Nigeria joins the Belt and Road Forum of nations, the prospect of addressing the lingering challenges of poverty and unemployment is about to receive a major boost.’ This is why a think tank like the ABC should be encouraged and this is also why ‘our duties as policy makers are to ensure that effective laws are in place to consolidate on the existing relationship of both nations,’ he said.

Mr Li Jianhui, the President of the China General Chamber of Commerce in Nigeria, Managing Director of the CGC Nigeria Limited, and the Vice President of the China Civil Engineering Construction Corporation Nigeria Limited (CCECC) Group, noted the support received from the Embassy of China and the Government of Nigeria since the establishment in July 2011 of the China General Chamber of Commerce in Nigeria, which now has 163 members, covering oil and gas, infrastructure, communication, manufacture, trade, agriculture, mining, finance and internet.

Segun Adeniyi, former presidential adviser on media and Chairman, Editorial Board of ThisDay Newspapers, drew attention to the admonition of Mr. Tony Ejinkeonye, the Business Development Director, Africa Esilknet Network, who is on record to have said that in his discussions with the Chinese, ‘the emphasis has always been on doing business on a win-win basis. But like every business or nation, you don’t get what you deserve but rather what you negotiate. There is no free lunch anywhere. Western nations ate our breakfast. Eastern nations are now eating our lunch. Nigeria and Africa need to ensure that they don’t also eat our dinner.’

Adeniyi noted that he had reacted to the statement and he believed that there is the need to learn lessons from the Chinese experience, at least, for the purposes of the ABC agenda. First, he noted on the basis of the June 2017 report by the global consulting firm McKinsey on China’s financial flows to Africa that ‘there is considerable upside for the continent if Chinese investment and business activity accelerate.’ This necessarily means that Africa ‘will need to dramatically improve their productivity and efficiency to compete – or partner effectively – with new Chinese companies on their turf.

Secondly, even though the Mckinsey report drew attention to Africa’s young population as an advantage, especially ‘with some estimates showing that 60% of Africa’s total population is between the ages of 15 and 25 that should be a plus,’ Adeniyi observed that the factor of young population cannot be seen as an advantage simply ‘because more than 50 percent of these young people are illiterate and many of them have little or no skills.’ In fact, Adeniyi has it further that even though those who have some education often exhibit skills irrelevant to the current demand in the labour market,’ there is the need to tackle this critical challenge.

Thirdly, and perhaps more importantly, he drew attention to the false impression we create for ourselves in terms of riches. He said Nigeria is by all accounts a poor nation. Additionally, Nigeria’s growing population is not backed by investment in education and health. There is also the factor of ‘national pride that comes with achieving something great.’ In essence, Adeniyi strongly believes that ‘there is nothing we cannot achieve if we are ready to work together as a team in pursuit of a common goal. That is the value China now brings to the world with the BRI.’

For Mr. Li, ‘with the joint efforts of the two governments, enterprises and people, there is a bright future for China-Nigeria cooperation, and the revitalisation of Nigeria will certainly be realised… We are all going higher to a next level and we will make Nigeria great again. The Nigerian eagle is starting to soar. May the friendship between China and Nigeria last forever.’

Many other speakers spoke along better days are still coming for the BRI and Nigeria-China entente. For instance, while Professor E. A, Ahaneku, the Vice Chancellor of Nnamdi Azikiwe University looked at the role of the Chinese in national development from the perspectives of the Confucius Centre at his university, Muhammad Sulaiman, the President of China Alumni Association of Nigeria, recounted the sweet inspirations he had as a student in China. Kelvin Yang, the Deputy Managing Director of Huawei Technologies Co. Nigeria Limited, also told the roundtable about the activities and development impact of his organisation in Nigeria. and without any gainsaying, Charles Onunaiju, the Director of the Centre for Chinese Studies, who also served as the moderator of the roundtable, made it clear that anyone accusing the Chinese of stealing technology cannot be a very serious person because technology cannot be stolen, it is a common patrimony.

Bola Akinterinwa, who also was one of the speakers, added that, even if we admit of the hypothesis of intellectual theft, the academic community will still need to explain how a thief has succeeded in becoming the leader. He argued that the Chinese have simply become great development thinkers, great development strategists, and quiet pace setters that there are international controversies which are normal. It can also be a matter of envy by others, it is expected. He gave the factors of commitment and discipline as the main dynamics of the Chinese success story. He recalled the anecdote of former President of Liberia, Sirleaf Johnson on how the United States refused to assist Liberia in refurbishing one of the buildings in the University of Liberia and how the Chinese offered to build a completely new building or replica of it in order to suggest that the BRI is a direct resultant of self-discipline and commitment in terms of foreign policy attitudinal disposition of the Chinese.

And most significantly, Dr Zhou Pingjian appeared to have given a good summary of the extent of the importance and unavoidability of the BRI in global economic relations. The Chinese ambassador used the high level of attendance, the factor of growing number of world leaders to explain the importance of the BRI. For instance, the 2019, April 25-27 BRF meeting, with the theme, “Belt and Road Cooperation: Shaping a Brighter Shared Future,’ attracted 38 Heads of State or Government, the United Nations Secretary General, as well as the IMF Managing Director.

In the words of Dr. Zhou, ‘over 6000 foreign guests from 150 countries and 92 international organisations participated in the forum. It was very fruitful. 283 deliverables were achieved. business representatives signed project cooperation agreements worth more than USD 64 billion.’

Explaining further the success of the second BRF, the ambassador underscored the factor of quality. As he put it, ‘high quality was the key word. The participants reaffirmed the commitment to promoting high-quality development of the Belt and Road cooperation. The BRI must be open, green and clean, follow a high-standard, people-centred and sustainable approach, and build synergy among policies, rules and standards.’

In recognition of these needs, ‘a number of initiatives during the forum, such as the debt sustainability framework for the BRI participating countries, the Beijing Initiative for the clean Silk Road, the green Investment Principles for the BRI development and the Cooperation Initiative on Silk Road of Innovation,’ were launched, the ambassador said. If the second BRF could witness the signing of over 100 bilateral and multilateral cooperation agreements, then there is no need overemphasising the significance of the BRI, as well as its increasing global acceptability. Within this global acceptability, how can Nigeria’s national interest be better fostered? How should the ABC as a think tank go about it?

Some Truths and the Way Forward

One bitter truth that is consciously ignored is that Nigeria’s foreign policy under President Muhammadu Buhari is never conducted and managed on the basis of strategic calculation, not to talk about the protection of the national interest. Muhammadu Buhari, as a military head of state was quite better in foreign policy than Muhammadu Buhari as an elected president. Without any shadow of doubt, Nigeria cannot be said to have any well-defined foreign policy as at today. Consequently, it cannot but be difficult to envisage where to place the eventual workings of the ABC, which intends to impact on the policy processes and ensure that Nigeria is able to gain from the dividends of membership of the BRI project.

Related to this problem is the near bastardisation of the whole Ministry of Foreign Affairs itself. People with little or no knowledge of diplomacy are deployed or cross-posted from other Ministries to the Foreign Ministry, ignoring the simple fact that diplomacy is a special elitist profession. Business ethics is quite different from diplomatic culture. A foreign ministry, in any given country of the world, is necessarily the central coordinating ministry for all others. It, therefore, imbibes all the cultures of other ministries.

But imbibing the cultures of others is not a one-day training nor is it acquired on the basis of on-the-job training. True, on daily basis, every second, every minute, there are happenings in the world, requiring the attention of specialists and experts who do know their onions. Consequently, deploying civil or public servants without the prerequisite background in official diplomacy is not, and cannot, be helpful to fast-tracking the BRI as a catalyst within the context of Nigeria-China strategic partnership as well as in obtaining the dividends of the BRI. The ABC will therefore need to quickly evolve an operational methodology or analytical framework for dealing with the challenges.

In particularly responding to the challenges of the BRI in Nigeria, Dr Tunde Emmanuel, a Resident Fellow at the Bolytag Centre for International Diplomacy and Strategic Studies (BOCIDASS), Lagos and Secretary to the Nigeria-China Friendship Association (NICAF), has it that Nigeria has done very little to take ownership of the infrastructural projects and investment of China in Nigeria and this is not likely to encourage a win-win outcome. Taking ownership of the BRI projects necessarily entails Nigeria’s increased and adequate contribution to the process of investment. A scenario where Chinese companies provide all of the expertise and the Exim Bank of China provides all of the credits, and Nigeria is unable to provide anything, cannot make the future of the BRI bright in Nigeria. This is one challenge that the ABC, in serving as a catalyst, should look into in addition to how to acquire technology.

As argued further in this regard by Dr. Emmanuel, Nigeria must learn lessons from the BRI. The implementation of BRI is primarily driven by technology. China’s strategic calculation is the use of technology as the primary instrument of foreign policy pursuit. This is in contrast with the traditional idea that underscores military capability as the primary instrument of foreign policy. The BRI implementation is a refutation of this notion. Therefore, Nigeria needs to develop an indigenous technological capability to take advantage of the technological deliverables of the BRI. Nigeria needs technological capability to effectively receive the deliverables, maintain them and improve on them for sustainable economic growth.