A “geopoliticized mineral race” is taking off in Central Africa, says China-Africa expert Cobus van Staden in the latest episode of The Pivot podcast. It centers on the Central African Copperbelt, a landlocked region stretching across the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Zambia, bordered by coastal states Angola and Tanzania.

Listen to this episode of The Pivot on Amazon Music, Apple Podcasts, Audacy, Castbox, iHeart Radio, Overcast, PandoraPocket CastsSpotify, TuneIn Radio, or YouTube Music.

Indeed, a game of ports is heating up in the region with the West and China backing competing corridors tied to critical green metals.

Lobito Corridor vs. TAZARA

The DRC and Zambia are among the world’s top producers of copper. And the DRC is by far the world’s top producer of cobalt. Both are key to the green energy transition, with cobalt serving as a crucial material for electric vehicle batteries, and copper being essential for the wiring of electric vehicles.

Zambia and the DRC are also now key nodes in two competing economic connectivity initiatives:

  • the Western-backed Lobito Corridor, which connects the DRC and Zambia to Angola’s Atlantic coast as an outlet to sea.
  • the China-built TAZARA — short for the Tanzania-Zambia Railway, which has long linked Zambia to Tanzania’s Dar-es-Salaam port.

The Lobito Corridor is anchored by the Benguela Railway — a colonial-era artery restored by China after Angola’s civil war came to an end in 2002.

China has an even deeper history with TAZARA. Built in the 1970s by a then-impoverished People’s Republic, it was China’s first major overseas infrastructure development project, providing landlocked Zambia with an outlet to sea bypassing white minority-ruled settler states Rhodesia and South Africa.

The project earned goodwill for China in the region and allowed it to position itself as an alternative to both the Soviet Union and the United States.

Great Power Rivalry and Green Metals

Great power rivalry is once again driving interest in the region. The stakes are high as competition between the G7 and China over clean energy supply chains intensifies. In Central Africa, that involves not just securing access to raw materials, but also the logistics networks that transport them to the rest of the world.

Through the Partnership for Global Infrastructure and Investment (PGI) — a competitor to China’s Belt and Road Initiative — the U.S. and European Union partners look to expand railway connectivity between Angola, the DRC, and potentially Zambia, and mobilize investment for agriculture and clean energy projects in the region.

A concession to operate the Benguela Railway, known as the Lobito Atlantic Railway, has, surprisingly, gone to a predominantly Western consortium, which would transport raw materials from the DRC and Zambia through Angola’s Lobito port.

Washington wants to showcase the Lobito Corridor as a sign it and other G7 countries mean business. It describes the project as the PGI’s flagship initiative. USAID’s Samantha Power just completed a visit to the region.

But this is a dynamic race for the routes and materials that will power the next century’s modes of transport. The West would be mistaken to underestimate China, which, as van Staden notes, has a “first-mover advantage.”

In fact, China has offered over $1 billion to rehabilitate the degraded TAZARA route and operate it under a public-private partnership. And that dovetails with Tanzania’s plans to serve as a gateway for landlocked regional states. Dar-es-Salaam is investing billions in building its own standard gauge railway and its two Indian Ocean ports.

What Do Local Countries Want?

Regional states may relish in the attention being directed their way by great powers. But they don’t want to have choices made for them. Van Staden says across Africa, local states prefer that China and the West “work together” and “for synergies to be allowed.”

Excluding China from critical supply chains, he adds, will be “very difficult” for the G7 “because Chinese companies have come to play such a huge role in these countries.” Regional states “don’t really have many other options than working with China.”

Chinese companies not only dominate extractive industries in Central Africa, van Staden notes, but even have minority ownership in one company involved in the Benguela Railway concession. And there’s really nothing prohibiting Chinese companies from using infrastructure financed or operated by Western entities.

Metals-rich countries are also now demanding more from their international partners. The DRC and Zambia now resist simply having their raw materials extracted and processed elsewhere. They want to start localizing the supply chain and have some of the processing and refining done in their own countries. It’s a theme we see elsewhere, like in Indonesia, which has pursued nickel “downstreaming” under the presidency of Joko Widodo. Whether the DRC and Zambia can replicate Indonesia’s playbook remains to be seen.

Episode Description

Cobus van Staden (@stadenesque) of the China in Africa podcast and host Arif Rafiq discuss two competing corridors that are at the heart of the great power race for green metals in the Central African Copper Belt: the Western-backed Lobito Corridor from Angola to the Democratic Republic of Congo and Zambia and the China-constructed and potentially soon-to-be revamped Tanzania-Zambia Railway (TAZARA).

They unpack the great power dynamics that anchor this competition, the complicated histories of the Lobito Corridor and TAZARA, and how all this fits into or may not fit into the development strategies of regional states Angola, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Tanzania, and Zambia.

Guest Bio

Cobus van Staden is the co-host of the China in Africa podcast, produced by the China in the Global South project. He’s also a senior China-Africa researcher at the South African Institute of International Affairs and a visiting researcher at the U.S. Institute of Peace. Cobus van Staden completed his PhD in Japanese studies and media studies at the University of Nagoya in Japan in 2008. 

Arif Rafiq is the editor of Globely News. Rafiq has contributed commentary and analysis on global issues for publications such as Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, the New Republic, the New York Times, and POLITICO Magazine.

He has appeared on numerous broadcast outlets, including Al Jazeera English, the BBC World Service, CNN International, and National Public Radio.


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