Taipei Times reported that gleaming concrete sleepers run across a new railway bridge in Kenya, the latest stretch of a Chinese-built line from the coast all the way to Uganda.
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Only, it does not quite reach the border.
Instead, the railroad ends abruptly by a sleepy village about 120km west of the Kenyan capital, Nairobi; the tracks laid, but unused.
Construction of what was intended to be a flagship infrastructure project for eastern Africa was halted earlier this year after China withheld about USD 4.9 billion in funding needed to allow the line’s completion.
Beijing’s sudden financial reticence appeared to catch the governments of Kenya and Uganda off guard: Both might now be forced to reinstate a colonial-era line in a bid to patch the link and boost regional trade.
The reason for China’s attack of cold feet might lie in the project’s high profile.
Chinese state media had repeatedly used the Mombasa-Nairobi Standard Gauge Railway project as a showcase for Chinese President Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative.
However, with concerns rising globally that the initiative was loading poorer nations with unsustainable debt, Xi in April signaled that Beijing would exert more control over projects and tighten oversight.
That extra rigor is beginning to be felt worldwide.
A planned light railway system that was the most high-profile Belt and Road project in Kazakhstan is on hold after the collapse of a local bank that handled Chinese funds.
In Zimbabwe, a giant solar project hit a funding shortfall after the Export-Import Bank of China backed out of providing financing due to the Zimbabwean government’s legacy debts, RWR Advisory Group’s Belt and Road Monitor reported this month.
Kenya’s line might be next.
The Chinese “are adopting a more cautious approach to their debt exposure in Africa,” said Piers Dawson, a consultant at London-based investment consultancy Africa Matters, citing “increased noise around its sustainability and potential default.” ■