The G7 challenges China: a railway could bring African minerals to Western markets

The United States and China are the main superpowers on the planet and compete in many areas of the world. Among these there is a seemingly unusual place: the city of Lobitolocated on the coast ofAngola, In Africa. Lobito has approx 400,000 inhabitants and was founded in 1843 by Portuguese colonialists. Already then the latter had equipped it with a railway that connects the city to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Here is the reason for the interest in her: although little known, Lobito has one pstrategic position which makes it, at least potentially, the connection point between the Congolese mines (for example of coltan), those of Zambia and the Atlantic Ocean (with Western markets as the final destination). To understand how we got to this point, however, we need to take a step back.

The G7 against the New Silk Roads

In 2013 the Chinese government launched the project Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), also known as the New Silk Roads. This initiative is based on the development of infrastructure to connect the Chinese market to the markets of the countries affected by the passage of the New Silk Roads. Between cooperation agreements and various types of infrastructure investments, more than 150 countries have decided to join the Chinese project and consolidate their relations with Beijing, including various African states. This has alarmed the USA which sees the BRI as a threat to its world leadership.

New Silk Roads Map

In response to the Chinese project, al G7 summit in June 2022 the 7 richest Western-style economies in the world have launched the Partnership for Global Infrastructure and Investment (PGII), an initiative that provides for the financing of infrastructure projects to be implemented in emerging economies, financed by the G7 countries and to which 15 states have currently joined. Although the G7 members do not want to define the PGII as a response to the New Silk Roads, the similarity between the two initiatives is quite significant. In fact, just like the BRI, the PGII is based on the combination of public and private investments to promote industrial development. It is in this context that the Lobito Corridor comes into play.

The Lobito corridor

The Lobito corridor is the project for the strengthening and extension of a railway line which starts from the Democratic Republic of Congo and ends at the port of Lobito, in Angola, passing through Zambia. The project is divided into two interventions fundamentals: the first is the improvement of the Benguela railway network (restored in 2014 by China) which already connects Lobito to the city of Kolwezi in Congo. The second is the extension of the network up to Lumumbashi (also in Congo) and from there towards the Copperbelt region in Zambia. Through this infrastructure the raw material produced in these two countries (Democratic Republic of Congo and Zambia) will easily be able to reach the coasts of Angola on the Atlantic Ocean and from there the western markets of the United States and Europe.

The strategic value of this project is increased by the processes of digital and ecological transition currently underway. In fact, both the rare earths produced in Congo (such as cobalt) and the copper produced in Zambia are crucial raw materials for the production of goods fundamental for the digital and ecological transition, from photovoltaic panels to electric cars. In this context, the Lobito corridor has become for many the symbolic project of the PGII in Africa and of Washington’s attempts to respond to the rise of China on the continent.

lobe corridor

The unknowns

On paper, the Lobito Corridor is a project capable of significantly changing the balance in the competition between Washington and Beijing in Africa, but to achieve these objectives it will be necessary to overcome several obstacles. The first is that of skepticism of African countries, who fear that this infrastructure does not bring them any real benefits on an economic level and in terms of job creation. The second is that of feasibility study: Although the G7 countries, as well as the governments of the Democratic Republic of Congo, Zambia and Angola, are convinced of the project’s potential from an engineering point of view, the Lobito Corridor is a very complex project to implement. It is, in fact, an electrified railway that must be developed for hundreds of kilometers and which consequently may not be feasible as imagined by its financiers. These issues will have to be resolved in a short time, given that, according to what was declared by the members of the G7, the project of Lobito corridor must be completed within 5 years.