Far from being the “defeat” for China that it’s been framed as, Sierra Leone’s cancellation of a $400 million airport project is actually a favor to the People’s Republic because it gives Beijing the opportunity to rethink some of its Silk Road loans to Africa and ultimately refine its strategy there.
It was easy to miss amidst the other more pressing news developments of the past week, but tiny Sierra Leone cancelled a $400 million airport project that it had previously clinched to with China in a move that’s since been hailed by some Western observers as ‘defying’ the People’s Republic. The original deal was agreed to earlier this year right before the country’s elections that saw the ruling party narrowly lose power, but this decision is more than just a partisan political one to symbolically spite the old leadership. This formerly conflict-plagued nation is extremely rich in mineral resources has nevertheless remained impoverished due to systemic mismanagement, which is why there were concerns that it wouldn’t be able to repay the massive loan that it took out and might eventually end up trading mineral contracts in exchange for clearing its debts.
Even if this would have turned out to be the case, it would still be the country’s sovereign right to do if its leadership thought that it was the best course of action for advancing Sierra Leone’s national interests, but the argument was also made that the airport itself was nothing more than a ‘vanity project’ because the capital’s existing international airport was already operating far below its maximum capacity. The problem with that facility, however, was that it’s located on the other side of Tagrin Bay and requires either a boat or helicopter ride to enter the actual capital. The $400 million airport would instead be located much closer to the city itself, which seems to have been its only selling point. After deliberating upon the massive national commitment that his predecessor had undertaken, the country’s current president decided to do away with the deal.
China’s infowar adversaries praised this as a David vs. Goliath battle where the tiny African underdog ended up beating the Asian Great Power, but if anything, Sierra Leone just did Beijing a massive favor by giving it the opportunity to rethink some of its Silk Road loans to Africa and ultimately refine its strategy there. China’s no-strings-attached loans are very attractive because they don’t carry with them the political conditions of structural economic “reform” and other changes that Western countries and institutions demand, though it’s precisely because of this laissez-faire approach that they can sometimes be abused by their recipients for the type of ‘vanity projects’ that President Xi warned about last month. The Chinese leader emphasized that his country’s loans should be used “in places where they count the most”, which in this context would make the $400 million airport extremely controversial, to say the least.
There shouldn’t be any “blame” put on China for offering the original loan and implementing the deal that it reached with the former administration because this responsibility is entirely the latter’s own, the same as it became incumbent on the current government to rectify this issue after it concluded that it wasn’t in line with Sierra Leone’s national interests. This doesn’t mean necessarily that their bilateral partnership is damaged; to the contrary, it might end up more efficiently fulfilling the spirit of President Xi’s vision of win-win cooperation. In hindsight, while the $400 million airport would have been more convenient for locals to access than the existing one, the price tag didn’t justify the benefit for this tiny and impoverished country, hence why it was cancelled. Going forward, China would do well to learn a few lessons from this experience.
The first is that all of the big-ticket megaprojects that it loaned African countries money to construct are now “fair game” in the global infowar against the Silk Road, so it should be expected that they’ll accordingly be targeted by the domestic opposition and any international forces that have an interest in smearing China’s reputation through allegations of “neo-colonialism”. It might therefore be wise if China proactively agreed to “gift” its many counterparts on the continent better financing and repayment terms on some of their flagship deals before this even becomes an issue or is manufactured into one. Relatedly, China should exercise better discretion over which projects it decides to fund in the future in order to preempt this infowar scenario from ever transpiring in the first place. If successfully applied, then these lessons would make the Silk Road much less susceptible to sudden “surprises”.