The Political Economy of China’s Infrastructure Development in Africa: Capital, State Agency, Debt

New monograph in Palgrave’s International Political Economy series

Book description

This book sheds light on structural drivers that led to the Chinese omnipresence in African infrastructure markets and offers a strategic-relational approach to the study of African agency in Sino-African infrastructure encounters. Case studies cover the Tanzania-Zambia Railway Authority (TAZARA), Zambia’s road sector as well as Tanzania’s Bagamoyo port and Standard Gauge Railway. It is shown that African (state) agency in the infrastructure sector is contingent upon dynamic state-society relations and distinct political-economic contexts and constraints. The book problematises contradictions related to infrastructure debt, the emergence of Sino-African public-private partnerships and the intensifying geopolitics-cum-geoeconomics of infrastructure across Africa.

The book…

  • Combines theorisation of Sino-African infrastructure cooperation with in-depth case studies from Tanzania and Zambia
  • Develops an original structurally grounded approach to the study of African agency in Sino-African relations
  • Adds nuance to the highly politicised debates about Chinese-owned African debt in times of intensifying geopolitics

Critics’ reviews

“Theoretically informed and enriched by fieldwork, this new book sheds light on the sometimes-murky depths of Chinese infrastructure engagement in Africa. Using Tanzania and Zambia to ground the research, Tim Zajontz highlights the African state strategies that shaped disparate outcomes. This perceptive analysis has global implications. It will be a useful resource for scholars and policymakers trying to understand the expansion of Chinese capital across Africa, and beyond.”

Deborah Brautigam, Bernard L. Schwartz Professor of International Political Economy Emerita, School of Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins University

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Chapter on infrastructure in the Yearbook on the African Union Vol. 3

Co-authored with Mandira Bagwandeen


This chapter first outlines key developments in AU decision-making and implementation structures in the infrastructure sector. Secondly, it documents AU efforts at ‘greening’ Africa’s infrastructure, focusing particularly on activities and positions at the 27th Conference of the Parties (COP 27) (Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, 6–20 November 2022) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). Relatedly, it also touches on the Alliance for Green Infrastructure in Africa (AGIA), which was launched on the margins of COP 27. Additionally, this section of the chapter also discusses developments throughout 2022 within the AU’s Programme for Infrastructure Development for Africa (PIDA) and the growing importance of infrastructure development in the context of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) and related AU policies aimed at industrialisation. Lastly, the third section of this chapter focuses on the AU’s external infrastructure partnerships and their increasing geopoliticisation.

Link to the chapter

A contemporary voice that won’t fade easily: The legacy of Professor Ian Taylor

Special issue on the life and work of Professor Ian Taylor, published by Contemporary Voices: The St Andrews Journal of International Relations

Abstract of the introduction

This article serves as the introduction to a special issue which undertakes a modest attempt at mapping and honouring the life and work of the late Professor Ian Taylor. It sketches Ian Taylor’s personal and professional milestones and outlines some of his main scholarly contributions, before outlining the structure and content of this special issue. With this “special” special issue, we chose to place emphasis not only on Ian’s lasting scholarly legacy but also on the impact he had on his students. The special issue fosters conversation about Ian’s work among some of his former PhD students and leading scholars in the research domains Ian was involved in. We hope to trigger further debate about an inspiring and influential intellectual, scholar and educator.

Link to the special issue

Official inauguration of the Professor Ian Taylor Collection in Addis Ababa

On 26 September 2023, I attended the official opening of the “Professor Ian Taylor Collection” at the Institute for Peace and Security Studies (IPSS) at Addis Ababa University.

After more than two years of team effort to fundraise and organise the transfer of the private library of the late Professor Ian Taylor, we were extremely grateful to see the beautiful new home of the book collection.

Here you can read the speech I delivered at the official opening ceremony at the IPSS:

Dear Director Dr. Fana Gebresenbet,
dear Mr. Ockenden,
dear Mr. Bekele,
dear IPSS team,
dear Jo,
dear friends and colleagues of Ian who join us from all over the world,

Today, we inaugurate the Professor Ian Taylor Collection here at the Institute for Peace and Security Studies at Addis Ababa University.

Ian Taylor passed away in February 2021 after a short struggle with cancer. He was Professor in International Relations and African Political Economy at the University of St Andrews in the UK. He also held extraordinary and visiting professorships at Renmin University and Zhejiang Normal University in China and at Stellenbosch University in South Africa. Ian was also a visiting professor at Addis Ababa University. For several years, he taught PhD students here at the IPSS, an institution which he spoke highly of and which he very much enjoyed visiting regularly.

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From Loan-Financed to Privatised Infrastructure? Tracing China’s Turn Towards Public–Private Partnerships in Africa

New article, co-authored with Kjeld van Wieringen, in the Journal of Current Chinese Affairs


Waning debt sustainability has challenged the debt-financed, infrastructure-led global expansion of Chinese capital. This article traces the gradual shift in the financial governance of the Belt and Road Initiative towards public–private partnerships (PPPs). We first document China’s domestic PPP experience and its failure to check the unsustainable indebtedness of sub-national governments. We then conceptualise China’s “turn” towards PPPs in Africa as an attempt at “metagoverning” its current growth model. Analysing official Chinese sources, we discern dominant Chinese narratives that present PPPs as panaceas for African debt problems. However, Chinese risk perceptions and empirical examples, such as the Nairobi Expressway, the Tanzania–Zambia Railway, and the Congolese Kolwezi–Kasumbalesa toll road, reveal that China’s experimentation with PPPs in Africa engenders new challenges, including popular contestation, controversies over financial terms and corruption. Furthermore, contrary to the official Chinese narrative, profit imperatives behind PPP investments and potential financial complications that were widespread in China’s domestic PPP experience risk adding to the financial burdens of African governments and populations.

Link to the article

Chinese globalism, African regionalisms and state spatial strategies: The intricacies of regionalising Africa’s railway renaissance

New chapter in Routledge book on Africa’s Railway Renaissance: The role and impact of China


China’s keen interest in constructing railways in Africa has been lauded by many as conducive to contemporary African regionalisms that are aimed at boosting intra-African trade and regional value chains. Yet, the railway-regionalism nexus is more complex and contradictory than it appears at first sight. Drawing on expert interviews and various primary and secondary data, this chapter identifies three sets of contradictions in the multi-scalar spatial political economy of Africa’s recent railway renaissance that complicate the latter’s regionalisation and curtail its impact on regional integration. First, it is shown that the globalism underpinning China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and the initiative’s predominant spatial logic of integrating African territories into China-centred, transregional value chains are not necessarily compatible with contemporary, more “inward-oriented” regionalisms advanced by the African Union, notably the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA). A second set of contradictions is owed to the fact that – despite much regionalist rhetoric and ambition – railway projects have been determined by national priorities and politics and marked by inadequate regional coordination and harmonisation, as an analysis of railway politics in the Southern African Development Community (SADC) and the East African Community (EAC) reveals. Third, this chapter demonstrates that, in the case of East Africa’s ongoing “railway race”, Kenya’s and Tanzania’s competing state spatial strategies have exacerbated disintegrating tendencies in the EAC and have resulted in a regional railway patchwork and contestation from actors who have lost out from changing regional transport economies. This chapter concludes that the regional impact of Africa’s railway renaissance is compromised “from above” (the global scale) and “from below” (the national scale), with both globalist and nationalist logics ultimately undermining recent, “inward-oriented” regionalism in Africa.

Link to the chapter

The political economy of China’s globalising railways – and their arrival in Africa

New chapter in Routledge book on Africa’s Railway Renaissance: The role and impact of China


This chapter sketches the historical development of China’s own railway sector and documents the centrality of railways in the current spatial reorganisation and expansion of the Chinese economy under the banner of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). It problematises three contradictions that have arisen in the context of Chinese railway projects in Africa. First, the question to what extent Africa’s railway renaissance is ‘owned’ by Africans. The author argues that certain knowledge-transfer and capacity-building measures have ensured a degree of local ownership of Chinese rail projects. Yet, just as other foreign commercial actors, Chinese firms have little interest in technology transfers to an extent that would enable African construction firms and manufacturers to join the very markets these firms are keen to exploit. Second, the state-orchestrated incentivisation of overseas rail projects has resulted in cut-throat competition among Chinese firms in African markets, which, in turn, has fuelled corrupt practices to win contracts. The author suggests that intra-Chinese competition is likely to remain stiff in Africa, as loan financing from Chinese policy banks has been restricted. Simultaneously, competition with other foreign firms will intensify. Lastly, it is shown that Chinese railway loans have caused political controversies across the continent and have become increasingly risky. To keep up demand for Chinese construction firms and railway manufacturers despite unsustainable debt levels, sovereign railway loans will likely make way for more public-private partnerships in the coming decade of Africa’s railway renaissance.

Link to the chapter

Africa’s Railway Renaissance: The Role and Impact of China

Edited volume on China’s role in Africa’s railway renaissance will be published in Routledge’s New Regionalisms series

Book description

The recent renaissance of railways in African development planning at national, regional and continental levels of governance has coincided with growing Chinese interests in globalising the country’s railway sector and related industries under the Belt and Road Initiative. Half a century after the historic construction of the Tanzania-Zambia Railway, railway projects are yet again symbols of Sino-African cooperation, albeit in substantially different geo-political and economic circumstances. This book provides a multi-disciplinary study of key drivers behind, and ramifications of, Chinese-built railways in Africa.

The collection compiles research that ranges from the micro to the macro level of analysis, conducted by a diverse group of scholars from the fields of development studies, economics, engineering, geography, history, international relations, sociology and political science. The book contextualises China’s major role in Africa’s railway renaissance from political-economic, spatial and historical perspectives. It examines how Chinese-built railway projects have interrelated with African regionalisms and exposes persistent challenges in regionalising the continent’s railway renaissance. In-depth case studies provide insights into social, economic and political contexts of, popular narratives about, and lived experiences along railway projects with Chinese participation, including Angola’s Benguela line, the Addis Ababa-Djibouti railway, Kenya’s Standard Gauge Railway and Nigeria’s Lagos-Kano railway.

Link to the book

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From ‘debt diplomacy’ to donorship? China’s changing role in global development

New article, co-authored with Pádraig Carmody and Ricardo Reboredo, in Global Political Economy

Since the mid-1990s the Chinese state and the country’s businesses have significantly increased their activity throughout the Global South. In International Development, China’s impacts on this varied meta-region have generated substantial interest in recent years due to their scale, scope and distinctive nature. Understandably, given the complexity of the subject, most analyses have focused on discrete aspects of Chinese engagement rather than attempting to undertake more comprehensive assessments around its nature and evolution. This article engages this lacuna by identifying the main vectors of China’s engagement in the Global South, and examining their adaptive nature. In particular it identifies the main channels of impact and intersection before focusing on China’s signature foreign economic policy, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), to ground the analysis. The article then examines the ways in which China is reconfiguring its foreign economic diplomacy in response to the issue of infrastructure-linked debt – perhaps the most controversial aspect of China’s growing global presence. We demonstrate that the Chinese ‘development’ policy is currently undergoing a substantial reorganisation towards soft power initiatives in response to (geo)political backlashes arising from the previous implementation of the BRI and the risks such loans present to the Chinese economy. We characterise this as an attempt at ‘normalisation’ of China as a ‘donor’, suggesting the power of global public opinion despite the ‘omni-channel politics’ and other power resources the country can bring to bear.

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Seamless imaginaries, territorialized realities: the regional politics of corridor governance in Southern Africa

New article out in Territory, Politics, Governance

Corridors are central to contemporary processes of spatial reordering. On the African continent, they feature prominently in development planning at national, regional and continental scales. This article sheds light on the regional politics and supranational governance of cross-border corridors, aspects that have remained underrepresented in the burgeoning literature on corridors. Combining theoretical insights from the New Regionalism Approach and critical political geography and focusing on the ‘corridor agenda’ pursued by the Southern African Development Community (SADC), the article deconstructs dominant conceptions of corridors as archetypal spaces of flow and advances the argument that the spatial production and governance of cross-border corridors are contingent upon the compatibility of scalar and territorial articulations of state space. In the case of the Walvis Bay–Ndola–Lubumbashi Development Corridor, the incompatibility of Namibia’s decidedly regional ‘gateway strategy’ and Zambia’s (sub)national ‘pothole politics’ has yielded a connectivity patchwork. Efforts to institutionalize supranational corridor governance have been obstructed by state territoriality aimed at retaining political control over corridor space at the national scale. While commonly represented as spatial panaceas for attaining neoliberal meta-goals of global connectivity and seamless territorial integration, (trans)regional corridors are politically contested spaces that engender dialectical processes of de- and reterritorialization at various scales.

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