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Tanzania falls for Chinese ‘debt trap diplomacy’, revives $10bn port project

New York: After assuming the Chinese presidency in March 2013, Xi Jinping made his first overseas trip. Following a brief stop in Russia, the new leader arrived in Africa. The three-nation tour of Africa began in Tanzania.

Beijing had high expectations for the country in East Africa. Facing the Indian Ocean, state planners thought that the country could serve as the main gateway to China, where resources could be brought from all over the continent, loaded onto ships, and sent to the mainland. But, Tanzania’s port of Dar es Salaam was already congested and notorious for the terrible traffic jams leading to it. Hence, a plan was drafted to build a massive port in Bagamoyo, about 75 kilometers away, for $10 billion.

Xi and the former Tanzania president Kikwete oversaw the signing of an agreement between China Merchants Holdings International and the government of Tanzania to drive the port project forward.

Later, the ambitious plan was postponed, reportedly due to frustration on the Tanzanian side over the conditions China had presented, including a request that Tanzania doesn’t question who invests in Bagamoyo once the port was operational. But on Saturday, Tanzanian President Samia Suluhu Hassan said the country would try to revive the port project.

‘Regarding the Bagamoyo Port project, let me give you the good news that we have started talks to revive the whole project,” she said at a gathering of the Tanzania National Business Council. “We are going to start talks with the investors that came for the project with the aim of opening it for the benefit of our nation,’ she said, according to a local newspaper report.

China’s Xinhua News Agency also carried the president’s remarks. Hassan’s remarks come five days after he spoke with Xi on the phone. China is ready to work with Tanzania to consolidate political mutual trust, strengthen mutual support,’ Xi told Hassan according to Xinhua.

Reminding Hassan that Tanzania was the first African country he visited as president, Xi said, ‘China always views and develops the China-Tanzania relations from a strategic and long-term perspective and firmly supports Tanzania in taking the development path in line with its national conditions.’

Chinese President Xi Jinping said China is ready to work together with Tanzania on implementing its development strategies. This repeated pledge of consideration for Tanzania’s national conditions is likely a reflection of the tensions that have resulted from the Bagamoyo project.

The Bagamoyo project was shelved by Kikwete’s successor, the late President John Magufuli, who was unhappy with ‘exploitative and awkward’ terms attached to the deal. One of the conditions, Magufuli disliked was China’s request that no other port be built in Tanzania, from Tanga in the north to Mtwara in the south.

The media reported that Magufuli had been told, ‘we should not question whoever comes to invest there once the port is operational.’

The port project was originally planned as a three-way collaboration involving China Merchants Holdings, the State General Reserve Fund of Oman, and the Tanzanian government.

In 2019, China Merchants had said that years of negotiations had ended without an agreement.

In a series of tweets last year, Chinese Ministry of Commerce official Cheng Wang, who was in charge of East African affairs at the ministry between 2013 and 2017, said the new port and Dar es Salaam would have a relationship comparable to Hong Kong and Shenzhen.

Cheng explained that after negotiations on Bagamoyo failed, China Merchants had instead focused on building a port in Djibouti.

China’s sole overseas naval base is in Djibouti. China recently built a pier in the East African nation large enough to accommodate an aircraft carrier, which could allow it to project power outside of its traditional operating areas of the East and South China seas.

Combining this with the late Magufuli’s comments regarding China’s request that Tanzania not question who invested in Bagamoyo, one wonders if China is looking for another East African port it can use for naval purposes.


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