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The Lobito Corridor

Will American and European efforts to halt China's expansion in Africa be successful?

08 October 2023

During the G20 summit held on September 9 and 10, 2023 in New Delhi, US President Joe Biden and European counterparts announced their support for the "Lobito Corridor" project, which connects the Democratic Republic of the Congo and northwestern Zambia to global markets via the Lobito port in Angola.

Multiple Dimensions

The following are the most prominent aspects surrounding the African corridor:

1. An artery for economic growth:

The African Corridor is considered as not just a corridor for mineral exports, but also an artery for future economic growth, since it stimulates a number of sectors along the line's path, such as heavy industry, mining, and agricultural, and thus creates new job opportunities. This corridor, which stretches more than 1,300 kilometers (808 miles) into Africa, is known as the Trans-African corridor.

The Lobito Corridor project is not a new one, as evidenced by its past evolution. It has recently attracted worldwide attention, with Western countries announcing the start of feasibility studies to construct railway lines connecting Angola, Zambia, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

The project is also intended to boost Zambia, Angola, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo's export potential, double regional products circulation, and facilitate citizen travel. By significantly reducing the average travel time, the new railway will reduce the logistical costs and carbon footprint of mineral, agricultural, and other product exports, as well as the future development of any resource finds.

2. Chinese investments in railways:

The Angolan Civil War destroyed the railways shortly after Angola's independence from Portugal in 1975. Despite the fact that the conflict ended in 2002, the railway line remained inactive for several years. Between 2006 and 2015, China Railway 20 Bureau Group Corporation reconstructed the Benguela railway, which runs through Angola from west to east, at a cost of USD 1.83 billion. The railway was then officially handed over to the Angolan government in October 2019.

3. International interest in investing in the new route:

Lobito Atlantic Railway won a 30-year concession for rail services along the Benguela railway in 2022 as part of a joint venture with Trafigura, a Singapore-based corporation, Mota-Engil, a Portugal-based corporation and Vecturis SA, a Belgian railway operator. To support its operations, the company has pledged to invest USD 455 million in Angola and up to USD 100 million in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

According to sources, the US and the European Union will fund the start of preliminary feasibility studies for the construction of the new railway line between Zambia and Lobito from eastern Angola through northern Zambia. This builds on from initial US-led financing for railway renewal from Angola's port of Lobito to the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The two parties also intend to step up cooperation in three areas, mainly related to the transportation infrastructure investments, measures to facilitate trade, economic development, and transit, and long-term support for relevant sectors to stimulate inclusive and sustainable economic growth and capital investment in Angola, Zambia, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. This could include establishing clean energy projects to increase energy supply to surrounding communities, supporting diverse investment in vital minerals and clean energy supply chains, increasing digital access, and growing agricultural value chains to boost local food production. This is in addition to increasing local worker training, strengthening small and medium-sized businesses, and diversifying the economy.

Simultaneous Contexts

The motives behind this project can be deduced from a number of global developments that highlight the geopolitical competition between important nations. This explains why Western nations announced the launch of feasibility studies for the Lobito Corridor project, which is evident through the following:

1. China's hosting of the third Belt and Road Forum:

Western and European interest in backing the Lobito Corridor project can be explained in terms of opposing Chinese influence represented by the Belt and Road Initiative. China is set to host the third Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation in October 2023, where significant changes to the Belt and Road Initiative are expected.

The Belt and Road Initiative seeks to link the Chinese state with Central, South, and Southeast Asia, the Middle East, Africa, and Europe in order to create a so-called "One Belt, One Road." The initiative was predicated on moving beyond its original routes in order to give this road a global character by financing and establishing roads, power plants, ports, railways, and digital infrastructure. The program is also the largest global infrastructure project ever, with China funding infrastructure around the world to the tune of one trillion US dollars, and approximately 150 nations have signed the program in some form or another.

2. Increasing international interest in Africa:

The announcement of American and European support for the Lobito corridor comes at a time when the African continent is witnessing intense competition between international powers. The African scene reflects a state of competition between Chinese, Russian, American, and European powers, whether at the economic, political, military, or security levels. In addition, the US and Europe proclaimed their support for the Lobito Corridor shortly after the BRICS group included two African countries: Egypt and Ethiopia. The G20 also decided to include the African Union, with the support of the US, Russia, and China, as an example of big countries' ambitions to gain influence over the African continent.

Possible Repercussions

This strategic project in the Sub-Saharan region is predicted to have a number of important ramifications on a variety of levels, which can be summarized as follows:

1. An increasing international competition on the African continent:

This is evidenced by a variety of economic indices. In 2022, the African continent as a whole exported $43.1 billion to the United States while importing USD 30.6 billion. In contrast, China exported $164.1 billion to Africa and imported USD 117.5 billion in African goods during the same year. As a result, African exports to China accounted for 17.7% of overall exports, while exports to the US accounted for around 6.5%. In general, China is the African continent's largest single economic partner, yet the combined strength of the European Union trading bloc, which includes 27 countries, remains dominant.

Russia, on the other hand, has pursued a different path, serving as the biggest military and security partner for several African countries, as recently proven by a number of indications. According to a RAND Corporation report, 31 African countries, including the Democratic Republic of the Congo, are being examined as destinations for Russian private military and security contracting corporations, while 14 countries, including Zambia, acquire Russian weaponry systems. Ten of these countries, like Angola, get weapons and services from private military and security contractor services from Russia.

2. European aspirations to establish a presence in Africa:

The European Union's declaration to support the Lobito Corridor project is part of its ambitions to increase European influence in the African continent. To counter Chinese influence, Europe launched the Global Gateway Initiative in 2022, with the goal of closing the international infrastructure investment gap, to increase trade exchange with international partners, and invest in digital innovation, green energy, transportation, healthcare, and education. The initiative aims to turn the European Green Deal into a global one by collecting roughly 300 billion euros in worldwide investments between 2021 and 2027. This effort intends to assist rising countries in a variety of sectors, including strengthening port facilities, and new railways, as well as developing modern communications, infrastructure, and digitization.

3. An increasing rivalry for natural resources in the Lobito Port’s member countries:

According to an International Energy Agency report released in May 2021, the African continent possesses over 30% of the world's mineral reserves, making it a hotbed of power rivalry. The Democratic Republic of the Congo supplies over 70% of the world's cobalt, which is required for electric vehicle batteries. Zambia is also Africa's second-largest producer of copper, which is utilized in electrical equipment like wires and motors.

The report also said that global demand for minerals used in the production of electric vehicles and batteries would more than triple by 2040. Lithium is the fastest growing component, with demand increasing more than 40 times, followed by graphite, cobalt, and nickel (approximately 20 to 25 times). The growth of electrical networks will also result in a more than doubling of demand for copper lines during the same time period.

The US-Africa Summit in Washington in December 2023 reaffirmed the American desire to maximize the African continent's resources, with the US signing a memorandum of understanding with the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Zambia to develop an integrated value chain for the production of electric vehicles, beginning with mineral extraction and ending with the battery assembly line.

The Lobito Corridor project is one of the most recent evidence of the increasing speed of competition between great powers on the African continent, particularly in countries with resources of significant strategic value on a global scale. As a result, the African countries interested in this endeavor will be close to the main countries' geopolitical competition. Although the Western countries' declaration was only about starting feasibility studies for this project, it will be just the first step in supporting other projects at the continent level, as part of the international race for influence on this continent.