SHANGA, Kenya – This dispatch got delayed; I was in no rush. Shanga (as in Shanghai) hasn’t been breaking news for 500 years. Today it is vital context as an American president plays dunces and dragons with China, which sees time in millennia, not four-year mandates.
Whatever Donald Trump might gain in trade talks, his public posturing spurs the ancient Middle Kingdom to ramp up its manifest destiny with economic, diplomatic and military expansion that began after the 2008 recession exposed weaknesses in Western dominance.
Plunder in a paradisiacal Swahili enclave on the Indian Ocean, which includes the ruins of Shanga and the fabled time-warp port of Lamu, is a telling example of China’s global quest for raw materials, food supplies and geopolitical clout.
Coral-block ruins still stand in the jungle here, built by shipwrecked Chinese sailors in the 1400s, well before Columbus happened upon America. The stranded seamen fathered children whose DNA can still be found in their progeny.
Back then, Admiral Zheng He ruled the waves with a fleet of 28,000 men in 300 ships, some 400 feet long. A giraffe he brought from the Swahili Coast intrigued the emperor. But China turned inward, leaving European powers to colonize Africa. Shanga faded away.
Today, the Chinese are back, bankrolling a $2.3 billion coal-fired power plant project on the mainland. Two Kenyan moguls cooked it up with help from a top politician whose rake-off is expected to fund a presidential run. This is an open secret, but reporters can’t nail down a paper trail.
Experts condemn the scheme. Kenya produces excess power, and all consumers pay a levy to subsidize unused capacity. The government is committed to developing alternative energy. The project would import coal and have to spend heavily on long-distance power lines.
Corruption is rife in Kenya; it has nearly as many white elephants as grey ones. But money aside, toxic smoke would foul the air and discharge would poison fish. Mangroves vital to ecological balance would be cut. And laidback Lamu, a U.N. World Heritage Site, would be lost.
Lamu holds fast to traditions that have vanished elsewhere. Life moves at donkey pace among twisting narrow lanes under white-washed minarets scented by cinnamon winds. Wooden dhows under muslin sails still ply the Indian Ocean as they have for seven centuries.
It has outlasted rule by Omanis, Turks, Portuguese and Zanzibaris. British colonizers built a concrete seafront to protect the old fort and merchants’ palaces, and they left the place to live as it always has. Hardy travelers blazed an overland trail in the 1960s. A glitzy jet-set crowd followed. Rich Europeans and minor royalty bought holiday homes.
Outsiders party in private behind carved doors and thick walls. Everyone wakes at dawn to muezzins wailing from two dozen mosques. Luxuries are simple: fish still flapping when they hit the grill, luscious papayas and mangos; bare toes on the beach, spectacular sunsets seen from rolling dhow decks.
Although environmentalist lawsuits have held off construction, dredging for the power plant and an adjacent port has already destroyed much of a rich coral reef. Meantime, Chinese backers are in no hurry. They are playing a very long game.
China has major construction contracts in the Lamu Port and Lamu-Southern-Sudan-Ethiopia Transport Corridor (LAPSETT), a maybe-sometime $16 billion plan to run a pipeline, road and railway deep into East Africa to exploit landlocked oilfields and mineral deposits.
“That’s how they do it,” the Anglo-Kenyan owner of a resort north of Lamu told me. “We think about tomorrow. They think about the next hundred years.”
Meanwhile, the Chinese government and private enterprises in favor are scoring big-time.
The coal plant is just one of hundreds that China is unloading on developing countries as it shifts to cleaner power at home. With soft loans for other projects, Beijing has burrowed into Kenya so deeply that the former British colony now teaches Chinese in primary schools.
Grants and loans include no human-rights lectures. Proposals often come with briefcases stuffed with cash to enlist friends in high places. If the plant opens, it will employ 1,400 workers from China. That is normal procedure. For the new railway from Mombasa to Nairobi, the engineers’ manuals are in Chinese.
Countless side benefits accrue. For instance, Chinese operators have devastated local crab populations to send back home, unhindered by coast guard patrols.
In earlier days, China offered occasional aid for political purposes. About 50,000 Chinese built the 1,160-mile TAZARA Railway to link Zambia’s copper belt to Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, skirting white-ruled Rhodesia and South Africa. When it opened in 1975, a band played, “Seas Belong to the Helmsman.”
I drove the new road from Kigali, Rwanda, to the Congo border in 1968. Chinese work gangs did the grunt work and kept to themselves. Signs near villages warning motorists to slow down showed the figure of a pedestrian: a man wearing a coolie hat and pigtail.
It is a different world now. China’s range stretches from the ocean floor to the dark side of the moon. Analysts at Stratfor reckon its global reach, including the Belt and Road Initiative and other projects touching 130 countries, could cost more than $8 trillion. That is about what America squandered on the Iraq war and its aftermath.
The dangers are obvious if a global power exerts influence ranging to suzerainty over independent states. America has often overstepped over the years. But at least it attempted to defend civil liberties, a free press, human rights and political dissent. China, not so much.
If push comes to shove, there is the military aspect. This year is the centennial of China’s humiliation after World War I, when the United States and European allies forced it under the thumb of Japan. Xi paraded elite troops and convincing hardware in Beijing to make a point.
On the 70th anniversary of the People’s Liberation Army Navy, Xi boarded a destroyer to review the fleet, including a nuclear submarine with ballistic missiles that could take out a sizeable city. “The ocean connects us all,” he said, “a community with a shared future.”
Up the coast in Djibouti, China built a naval base near the once-sleepy French Foreign Legion post, not far from America’s Camp Le Monnier. Then a Chinese company contracted to run Djibouti’s port so that all ships entering the harbor pass under Chinese scrutiny.
In recent CNBC interviews, Tom Friedman and Steve Bannon were in rare accord: A hard line is essential because China steals shamelessly and cheats on trade agreements. Beyond soybeans, Boeings and consumer goods, this is about high technology affecting national security.
But Bannon then asserted, “We’ve got all the cards.” If a trump card in bridge means what I think it does, that’s the trouble. China might be forced to show a weaker hand to a boasting, swaggering opponent. But it will find a way to settle the score, in spades.
Over the past year, Trump has tweeted about China 133 times. Chinese leaders have said very little. But an anchorman on state-run TV recently made things clear: “If you want to talk, our door is wide open. If you want to fight, we’ll fight you to the end.”
China would suffer, but it can take it. What if it declares a consumer boycott on American products? As The Economist noted, “Forecasting models scarcely capture the alarm that would spread through markets if the world’s two biggest economies engage in a full-blown trade war.”
Most anyone in Shanga or Shanghai would suggest that saving face on both sides requires meeting in secret, without TV or tweets, to slug it out over terms that each can define as victory. That, alas, is hardly Donald Trump’s style.