The Rise of China's Railroad Diplomacy

Chinese and Venezuelan construction workers build an elevated platform at China Railway Engineering Corporation's (CREC) Tinaco-Anaco railway project in Los Dos Caminos, Venezuela in 2012 Photograph by Meridith Kohut/Bloomberg

Last week state-owned China Railway Construction Corp. (CRCC) signed a lucrative contract with Nigeria to build an 870-mile coastal railroad from Lagos to Calabar, two of the West African nation’s leading cities. The price tag: $12 billion. That makes it the largest single overseas engineering contract awarded to any Chinese company, according to state-run Xinhua newswire.

Beijing hopes many more deals will follow. In recent months, Chinese leaders on overseas missions have often bragged of the country’s prowess in building railroads, including high-speed bullet trains.

In May, Li Keqiang made his first diplomatic trip as China’s premier to Africa, visiting Ethiopia, Nigeria, Angola, and Kenya. At the headquarters of the African Union in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, he said he envisioned a bright future for the continent when African capitals would be connected by high-speed rail. And China, he added, according to Xinhua, could “help make this dream come true.”

In early November, a consortium of Chinese companies led by CRCC won a $3.7 billion contract to build a bullet train in Mexico; that contract was canceled a few days later due to suspected corruption on the Mexican side. But the aborted deal is still a sign of overseas demand for China’s rail technology.

Nor are rail deals limited to developing nations: In October, Boston’s transit authority signed a $567 million contract with China’s CNR Corp. to build 284 subway cars.

In addition to stimulating domestic manufacturing demand for steel and rail equipment exports, China’s leaders hope the flurry of railway deals will have soft power benefits as well. The Nigerian railroad will be “a mutually beneficial project,” as CRCC Chairman Meng Fengchao told Xinhua. He pledged to hire at least several thousand workers from Nigeria; in the past, Chinese companies have been criticized for bringing in Chinese workers to complete large engineering projects, thus denying work opportunities to local populations.

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