Growing Chinese Footprints in Tanzania

About two years ago, the much awaited Bagamoyo Port Project in the Bagamoyo Special Economic Zone, which was being constructed by China Merchants International Co. Ltd. alongside Oman Sovereign Wealth Fund at a cost of US$ 10 billion, scheduled to be completed by 2021 was called off. Though many theories and explanations were floated by many stakeholders…have you ever wondered why a relatively lesser developed nation would say no to an aspiring economic giant?!

The simple answer is that the Tanzanian authorities woke up to the Chinese call of fully handing-over the Bagamoyo Port to China. This of course is not only a strategic security concern for any free nation but also raises economic issues about the benefits to be derived from a port project. World over, most countries, even those engaging in China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) are aware of what happened to Sri Lanka in the Hambantota Port Project which the Chinese eventually fully took over. It is but obvious that no self respecting country wants to go through a similar humiliation. Hence, to avoid a repetition of such a disaster, President John Magufuli intervened in time and scrapped the project. This is widely acknowledged as having saved the country from becoming another Sri Lanka.

In another instance, refraining to bow to Chinese arm-twisting tactics aimed at pressurizing the authorities to grant China Harbour Engineering Company (CHEC) expansion of the Mkinga Port and construction of an Exclusive Economic Zone around that port, the Tanzanian government refused the Chinese company from having any exclusive access or use of the port. Annoyed at this measure and reflecting its displeasure, China declined to develop the adjacent Tanga Port and its linking to the Mkinga Port by railway line. These tactics show that the Tanzanian government was left with a choice to either submit to Chinese pressure of granting exclusive port rights (because of its strategic location) or withdraw from upgrading the existing infrastructure & other development projects. The Chinese however are desperate and innately want these projects to be functional as they invested heavily in acquiring about 17,000 hectares of land adjacent to both these ports.

Undoubtedly, China continues its presence in key sectors in Tanzania. In an important region named Mbinga, which is rich in Uranium and adjoins Lake Nyasa, which has abundant oil and gas reserves, China continues to make inroads to unearth natural resources. To validate its presence in the area and to thwart any kind of local opposition to its commercial activities, the Chinese Embassy in Tanzania donated TSH 24 million for public projects in the Mbinga Urban, Ruvuma region. The day doesn’t seem too far when Chinese companies would make all out efforts to gain a strategic foothold in these two vital areas and claim their dominance.

Gradually however, the Tanzanian government has started realizing that most of the Chinese funded projects run into delays and do not seem to be very cost effective. Sometime, in late 2020, permission for a Chinese-funded farm with an area of more than 2000 hectare in Kimamba Town, Kilosa County was also withdrawn by the government for lack of timely and effective development. Nevertheless, the Chinese strategy of acquiring key infrastructure projects to gain access at strategic locations persists as witnessed in the covertly maneuvered Dar-es-Salaam Metropolitan Development Project, which when completed would enable China to maintain its presence at important venues within the country for prolonged durations.

Admittedly, with the increased presence of Chinese manpower and material at various strategic positions, President John Magufuli has taken a wise decision of opting for an indigenous construction of the National Defence Hqrs in Kikombo, using 85% finance from the African Development Bank and CRDB (Local bank of Tanzania), and the remaining 15% from available reserves of the government. Viewing the scale of Chinese mismanagement and mishandling of operations, even the project for construction of Msalato International Airport awarded to M/s Sino Hydro Corporation Ltd in joint venture with Sino-Aero Construction Engineering Company Ltd & China Jinagxi International & Technical Corporation has been called off by President Magufuli himself. A new open tender is now being floated to award the contract to a suitable firm.

Not just in the realm of infrastructure, with regard to military armaments too, Tanzania has been experiencing numerous hurdles in its engagements with China. The country has been reeling under a shortage of spare parts for the Chinese made military aircraft, Y8F200, currently operated by TPDF. It is believed that if the supply of the spare parts for the aircraft is not met, these may be grounded soon and the country would have to face a huge challenge in terms of both internal security and financial losses. Recently, an Y8 F200 aircraft even crashed near the Kijuka Airbase with reasons for the same left unknown that apparently could not be ascertained by the authorities.

As a practice in exercising territorial influence and economic control, in Africa or elsewhere, whenever China is found to be dwindling in any sector or area, it immediately starts offering revised terms and conditions as a better bargain to secure its interests. The same was eventually noticed in the case of the Bagamoyo Port Project as well, but that did not eventually materialize. It seems like Tanzania realized that succumbing to the nefarious Chinese designs has the possibility of not only comprising national security but also becoming a potent danger to entire East Africa besides of course, impacting trade and losing economic leverage by handing over the port to another country.

As is known, China is relentless and the Chinese are believed to have already activated their diplomatic channels to sustain commercial activities in various sectors including infrastructure, resource development, agriculture, manufacturing and tourism. Only time will tell how effectively the wolf warrior is able to register his presence back!