New Sino-Africa Geopolitical Discourse Hits Bookshelves

693 views Published on 23rd July 2013

As the China-Africa field continues to draw scholars and thought leaders, works reflecting one of the most exciting geopolitical dynamic continue to hit bookshelves. Inter Region Economic Network’s China-Africa Partnership: The quest for a win-win relationship is one among recent knowledge resources to be churned out. Arising out of a July 2012 forum sponsored by the Chinese embassy in Kenya, the book brings together a mix of 26 papers authored by African and Chinese scholars.

Over and above introductory and concluding papers, the book is divided into five sections traversing trade and development; peace and security; culture; international relations and Forum on China Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) analysis. The nexus of the book is a political economy inquiry from an exclusively Sino-Africa viewpoint, probably borne of a drive to decentre perspective away from a Western-centric school of thought.

Overall, the collection of papers succeeds in contributing a body of knowledge on factors and arguments – internal and external to China and Africa – that animate the place of China in Africa and vice versa. Inescapable is what China-Africa relations portend for country and continent in global affairs. 

Readers wishing to dip into overarching exigencies in China-Africa dynamics will have an opportunity to appraise diverse thematic standpoints from both established China-Africa scholars as well as those from generic social science fields who, let us face it,  dabble in the China-Africa field from time to time. 

Apart from the introductory note by Chinese ambassador to Kenya, Liu Guangyuan, the papers are authored by seven Chinese and 14 African scholars. Thus the broad thematic and disciplinary thrust is bolstered by a plurality of viewpoints. This diverseness in perspective must however be qualified in that while an attempt seems to have been made to include viewpoints from southern, northern and western Africa, it is patently evident that the Kenyan viewpoint has a lion’s share. Since the book is framed as a China-Africa inquisition, a more conscious effort should have been made to drill down to other regions with the rigor exhibited by authors such as Joseph Onjala and Adams Oloo on the Kenya-China relations or Mustapha Machrafi and Hicham Hafid on the Arab Maghreb. This is quite palpable when one looks at the papers by Chinese scholars that overarch over Africa in comparison to some African scholars who narrow down to specific regions and countries. Thematically therefore, was the publication meant to be a country-to-country, regional, or continent-wide analysis? 

The book is a worthy resource for the uninitiated who might be at a loss as to what catch phrases such as ‘win-win,’ ‘new type of partnership,’ ‘common development’ and others that underpin China-Africa relations mean in practice. Indeed, virtually all the papers draw on very much the same sources to demonstrate indisputable economic statistics as evidence of how Africa benefits from Africa and vice versa.

He Wenping narrates how China has supported upwards of 900 projects since 1956 while China has benefitted from infrastructural contracting. Tang Xiao points out the comparative advantages of China’s industrial prowess while Africa serves as source of raw materials for China. Joseph Onjala presents data such as Chinese concessional loans that have revamped Kenya’s road network. James Shikwati argues the case for close China-Africa ties in the context of the ‘decline of the West’ discourse.      

Is China a force for peace on the continent or an indifferent player more focused on resource extraction than anything else? Well, Zhang Chun, Bertha Osei-Hwedie, Paul Odhiambo and Wiseman Mupindu provide compelling evidence to show that China is a key player in Africa’s peace and security architecture. Indisputable figures to show that China is way ahead of other global powers in terms of peacekeeping ‘boots on the ground’ are presented. However, there is consensus that the Chinese approaches to conflict and post conflict situations on the continent differ from to those of the West. This is particularly so as far as the conception of peacekeeping and peace building are concerned. All the papers on China-Africa peace and security relations are expansive in the sense that they bring in global perspectives in the context of multilateralism and unilateralist contestations. Quite interesting discussions on Chinese and African foreign policy – for instance non-interference versus non-indifference – are brought to light.

China Africa relations have always been framed in a manner to suggest that the former is the giver or donor while the latter is always happy to be on the receiving end. The papers on inter cultural considerations provide thoughtful repudiation of this ‘received knowledge.’ Li Anshan is too modest to pointedly affirm that China has leveraged her rich culture for national development. He however suggests several areas in which China could learn from Africa drawing on a similarity-differences continuum suggestion some areas where China could learn from Africa. Probably the only paper in the whole volume that draws on original research is that of Shi Lin based on an ethnographic study in Zimbabwe. Lloyd Amoa’s paper provides anecdotal evidence of how Africa may be impacting on China albeit in a muted way.

Want to understand why China has excelled in Africa compared to more geographically and historically proximate India? Well, Adam Oloo’s and Joseph Onjala and Mediatrax Tuju’s papers present analyses to show not only that China is ahead of India in Africa, but that all things remaining equal, this will be the case in the near future. Why has China been so successful in courting Africa? Macharia Munene’s paper provides some cogent historical and ideological food for thought.

While the book is packed and backed with polemics and statistics to demonstrate the tight and continuing China-Africa relations, it also appraises some of the unfinished business that could do with improvement. If the phrase ‘constructive criticism’ has any value, it more than demonstrated in this book and indeed, African and Chinese bureaucrats could use it in their engagements. Tang Xiao’s paper on the role of China in Africa’s desire for integration provides some thoughts on how Africa’s fractured nature is a problem not only to Africa itself, but also to external players such as China. Li Anshan metaphorically points out that Africa may want to go slow on China’s “humanity (should) conquer nature” mantra in the period after establishment of the People’s Republic China as this could have negative consequences on the environment. Examples of this kind abound in the book.  

A good number of the authors point out issues revolving around the balance of trade that is in favour of China, the potentially deleterious effects of Chinese imports on Africa’s nascent manufacturing sector and the mismatch arising out of China’s state-led development model vis a vis Africa’s Westphalia-inclined socio-political systems. Probably because of the China-Africa asymmetry, most of the papers naturally provide ‘counsel’ on where the continent could do with a change for the better to benefit more from the relations.  

Critique

Is this review already too long? Well, as mentioned earlier, the volume contains 26 papers – not counting introductions and conclusions, which is an overkill! It appears that the editor published every conference paper instead of exercising discretion to knock off some of the papers. After all, the book is presented not as a forum report, but a collection of papers arising out of that forum – and the two are different. Standard practice is that some papers presented at forums can be published while others may not meet benchmarks and be discarded – sorry!

The challenge with publishing all the papers presented at the conference is that some of the intellectually engaging papers are dragged down by the weak ones.  

A good example is the stub of a paper simply entitled “China-Africa Cooperation” a casual conversation with no citations and no central theme. The supposedly ‘critical’ paper by Adams Oloo is quite a letdown once one realises the paper could have been pulled from a previous conference circuit or academic endeavour and thrown in. The paper is dated as any China-Africa researcher would take only a few minutes to realise that the arguments presented are based on secondary literature from the India-Africa Forum Summit of 2008 rather than the latest event held in 2011 in Addis Ababa. Many other instances where data from the past is presented as current are evident.

A paper on the emerging challenges between Kenya and Somalia territorial water disputes is absolutely lost. It has nearly zero linkage with the overall theme of the book, much as it touches on an otherwise important issue.     

Reading the book cover to cover, one gets the impression that sufficient rigour was not afforded to thematic structuring of the book. Matters trade and economic are rather scattered when they could have been closer together. They are handled in the trade and development, reflections on China-Africa relations and benefits of implementing 5th Focac chapters yet they analyse similar issues. Geopolitical discussions are mixed with statistically deterministic analyses. The theme of China’s role in African integration should probably have been a standalone. This is but one point to illustrate a weakness in thematic orientation that give the book a staccato feel and disrupts the flow. Indeed the mere labelling of the chapters suggests the overall editorial incoherence.

While the papers in the peace and security chapter are rich, one only needs to peruse their references to understand why they are so similar. Indeed, more guidance to the authors and editorial discretion could have ensured more variety in these respects.

Because of language questions, you for instance find a paper entitled: “Understanding China’s Neo-colonialism in Africa” – really! Or that China Africa relation “…initially started as the search for Africa’s strategic natural resources” – really! Probably a professional book or journalistic editor could have helped smooth over these and other factual and grammatical challenges. 

By Bob Wekesa

The writer is a PhD candidate at Communication University of China and visiting researcher at Witwatersrand University, South Africa.

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