Ufahamu Africa

Bonus: Hear Laura Seay’s review of Lina Benabdallah’s book on China-Africa relations

September 04, 2021 dadakim
Ufahamu Africa
Bonus: Hear Laura Seay’s review of Lina Benabdallah’s book on China-Africa relations
Show Notes Transcript

In this bonus recording, hear Ufahamu Africa host Kim Yi Dionne read Laura Seay’s review of Shaping the Future of Power: Knowledge Production and Network-Building in China-Africa Relations, a book by Lina Benabdallah (@LBenabdallah).

The review was published in last year's African Politics Summer Reading Spectacular (#APSRS20), and this recording is being shared as part of a collaboration with The Monkey Cage (@monkeycageblog), a blog on politics and political science at The Washington Post.

Kim Yi Dionne:

Welcome listeners and followers of Ufahamu Africa and The Monkey Cage. This is another installment from the African Politics Summer Reading Spectacular, a series on new books in African politics. All the reviews can be read on The Monkey Cage's website. I'm Kim Yi Dionne, one of the hosts of Ufahamu Africa and an editor at The Monkey Cage, a blog on politics and political science at The Washington Post. This week's review is written by my co-editor at The Monkey Cage, Laura Seay. Last year, she reviewed the book, "Shaping the Future of Power" by Lina Benabdallah, a political scientist at Wake Forest University. Our listeners might recall that Lina has been a guest on the show in episodes 4 and 97. Have a listen to Laura's review. "'What is China up to in Africa? Read This Book.' By Laura Seay. Are we likely to see more conflict in Africa in the years to come? Many analysts are hesitant to argue that the great powers - rich influential countries such as the United States and China - are going to start a new Cold War like conflict for influence on the continent. But others, including influential decision makers in the Trump administration, see conflict over Africa as inevitable and are making the idea of a new great power competition central to U.S. policy in Africa. Proponents of this idea point to rising Russian influence in the natural resources sector, Chinese investments in infrastructure, and U.S. efforts to fight terrorism as evidence that competition for influence and allies in Africa is growing. Of particular interest to those who want to understand these dynamics is the case of China, which is now about 20 years into a coordinated effort to build influence and alliances with African countries. Most analysis of what China is up to in Africa points to two main goals: building additional markets for Chinese goods as China's manufacturing sector continues to dominate global production and establishing Chinese migrants and building infrastructure and reshaping economic sectors, especially agriculture in Africa. In her smart new book, "Shaping the Future of Power," knowledge production and network building in China Africa relations, Wake Forest University political scientist Lina Benabdallah shows that these analyses, while useful, are incomplete. Traditional international relations analysis focuses on exactly what most scholars of China Africa have already identified, material concerns such as investments, markets, and infrastructure. But as Benabdallah brilliantly explains, the Chinese conception of building alliances depends on far more than money. She shows that at least as important to Chinese officials is building networks and individual relationships between Africans and Chinese people. Producing new knowledge, building social networks and social capital, and transferring skills from person to person are all key aspects of Chinese foreign policy in Africa. In her analysis, Benabdallah demonstrates that China projects power in ways that are markedly different from historic Western conceptions of power projection. Her work marks a major challenge to the assumptions of many traditional theories of international relations. As she writes, 'Social networks and people-centered relations are a core factor for the successful conduct of Chinese foreign policy, even in areas where traditional international relations theory would expect materialism to dominate." The concept that unites all of these ideas is guanxi, a Chinese word meaning connections that implies a type of special network or a circle of relations through which the exchange of favors is expected in business, social, and political relations. It can be thought of as akin to relationality, the idea that we should look at people-to-people relations to understand how societies and relationships work. Benabdallah's work shows how guanxi norms play out in the ways African and Chinese governments interact. For example, in the security cooperation arena, guanxi as a guiding principle means that for China, building military bases and launching a powerful navy is important, but the work of building relationships and professional networks between military officers, rank and file soldiers, and even those building the ships and bases is equally important. Building the skills and knowledge of those individuals is also very significant. This is accomplished through training, exchanges, and official visits of high-level military leaders. While these things happen with western powers too - the United States conducts lots of exchanges and training with African militaries - for China, this strategy is the backbone of its foreign policy strategy. For most western powers in contrast, the exchanges are more of a means to the end of fighting terrorism or increasing the capacity of African middle terries to participate in peacekeeping missions on the continent. Guanxi does not just guide Chinese strategy in Africa with respect to high level officials and leaders. China also conducts public diplomacy with African journalists, offering scholarships for studying in China, exchange trips, and long-term cooperative training. The goal of these workshops is to help African journalists build Africa based coverage of the continent with little need for reference to western media, which in the eyes of China and many African journalists often produce condescending, incomplete narratives about the continent that suggest Africa is a basket case of poverty, disease, and war. China's investments and personal relationships are aimed at creating a bond with developing countries whose voices and media narratives are marginalized by developed countries' media corporations. Of course, media training from a country where state officials control all information may not be attractive to many African journalists, even those eager to travel and explore China on all-expenses paid trips. And as Benabdallah notes, there is still a problem and that China is not particularly interested in sharing Africa produce narratives with its own domestic audience. To many African governments. However, training journalists to write or broadcast with a pro-government orientation is quite attractive. Benabdallah's work presents a major and significant challenge to traditional understanding of power politics between great powers. China is betting that by building relationships and transferring skills, its long-term prospects for good relations with African countries will be better than if it were to pursue a traditional model of aid or power relations. Benabdallah's contribution is a must read, not just for scholars of China-Africa relations, but for all who are interested in China's role in the world today."