China often touts “win-win” cooperation. Looking at projects such as the recently opened metro rail service in Abuja, Nigeria, offers a sense of the reality of this supposedly “win-win” development. China is building a global empire of state-controlled projects that leave developing nations supportive of and often deeply in debt to China. The real winner of these projects is the Chinese government and the losers are the Western nations that are rapidly losing influence.
The first phase, and the only parts of the rail line currently open, of the Abuja Light Rail Mass Transit project connects the Abuja international airport and the Abuja Transportation Centre with eight stations and modern facilities. When fully completed, the rail system will have 180 miles and connect major parts of Nigeria’s capital city.
The project was constructed by China Civil Engineering Construction Company, a state-owned enterprise, and funded with a loan of $500 million from the Export–Import Bank of China, which is under the control of the Chinese State Council, to the Nigerian government which covered the majority of the costs of the project. The Chinese bank will also provide $194 million to pay for the 48 coaches and their maintenance over the next three years.
Praising the project, Nigerian President Muhammdu Buhari said, as reported by the News Agency of Nigeria, “Let me place on record the Nigerian government’s appreciation to the government of China and the Ex-Im Bank of China for their support of this and many other projects currently being executed in the country.”
This sort of support is exactly what China is looking for as the rising Asian superpower seeks to expand its influence. In at least one respect, these projects have already won support for Beijing. After Bunari was offered loans during his 2016 trip to China, for example, Taiwan’s Abuja trade office was closed and Nigeria’s government expressed its support of the “One China” policy, which means considering Taiwan not an independent country but a province that should fully belong under Beijing’s rule.
The other immediate advantage for Beijing is access to Nigeria’s rapidly developing market. Nigeria, one of the fastest-growing economies in Africa, provides the opportunity for lucrative development contracts for Chinese companies as well as a market for Chinese goods.
China continues to solidify its relationship with Nigeria through other projects in sectors such as power, IT, and the digital economy. One of the largest projects is the Mambilla hydropower project, which will also be funded by the Ex-Im Bank of China at a cost of $5.8 billion.
With each project, Nigeria grows closer to China — seemingly without notice or attention from Western nations including the United States. Although China building railways in Nigeria seems far away, the loss of Western influence means a loss of access to markets, loss of political cooperation, and that other nations are more likely to look to Beijing rather than Washington for support and that, in return, those nations are more likely to support Beijing on issues like Taiwan’s sovereignty, human rights, and trade.
Beyond these issues, the bigger picture is that China is establishing itself as the dominant player in the developing world. So far, most projects have been economic, but recently, China has also moved to place more troops and military infrastructure overseas including in Africa. This trend, combined with examples of the leverage provided by indebted nations, such as the recent takeover of a strategic port in Sri Lanka, points to China’s increasingly realistic ambition to rival the Western-dominated world in terms of both economic and military strength.
Despite China’s investment, the United States remains a strong trading partner with Nigeria and a strong international ally. The U.S. is also the largest foreign investor in Nigeria. These relationships are key to countering Chinese influence in the region and should be supported by the United States government. Free trade policies (rather than tariffs and trade wars) and support for allies (rather than demeaning criticism) are essential. The U.S. needs to prove that it offers reliable support or else Beijing’s offers and money will outpace existing goodwill.