China and Africa: The New Era

Kim-kwong Chan

During the past decade, China-Africa relations have drawn much international attention as China has become the largest investor in this continent, with projects including high speed rail, fiber-optic cables, loans, medical facilities, and education. However, this relation has drawn diverse framings, from an exciting model for Africa’s development to an exploitative neo-colonialism. In the midst of these contradicting interpretations, Daniel Large has not only provided an enormous amount of data from his years of in-depth studies on this important theme. He has also presented them in a multi-dimensional framework to illustrate the complexity of this unique relationship between China and the 50+ African nations, which often have few commonalities among themselves other than being geographically situated in the same continent.

Large’s volume is organized into six major themes: (1) the evolution of China-Africa engagement from the export of revolution in Mao’s day to the current multi-ministerial integrative approach of Xi’s New Era, engaging with multiple stakeholders from the African Union to individual nations and non-state political and civil organizations; (2) China’s foreign policy on Africa, situated within the wider context of Xi’s “multi-polarization” (p. 57) global engagement and the responses of various African nations to this policy’s effect on domestic and international political leverage; (3) the economic relations involved with themes such as infrastructure, which connect to the BRI and loan-debt arrangements that often leave gaps between the intended objectives and the actual outcomes; (4) the promotion of the China Model to Africa and the various responses from different African nations, which reflected the socio-political diversity among African countries; (5) the civilian interactions, legal and illicit, of Chinese communities in Africa, but also of the African communities in China, which often get ignored by policymakers despite generating significant impacts on diplomatic as well as economic relations; and lastly, (6) China’s security agenda with respect to both protecting its interests in Africa and projecting of its military capacity beyond China’s borders. 

Throughout this volume, Daniel Large provides insights on China-Africa relations, and such insights go beyond the popular, often generalized, and even polemic understandings of this relationship. China and Africa are incomparable: China is governed by one single political entity, whereas Africa is a geographical region with 50+ sovereign states with diverse political, economic, cultural, and historical compositions. Therefore, China’s general “one size fits all” policy toward Africa could hardly fit all of these nations’ situations. Similarly, as China engages with individual nations in concrete projects, the asymmetry in terms of strength and size is obvious, leading to the sense of inequality despite the diplomatic language of reciprocity and mutuality. The book also highlights the political agenda of both China and some of the African countries. Such agendas can override economic objectives, causing unintended consequences.

Furthermore, the rosy rhetoric of China’s policy toward Africa ­– often portrayed in terms of mutual respect, noninterference in internal affairs, and equality – have frequently been demythologized by the African leaders. Large quotes an open statement from Namibian President Geingob: “We are not puppets” (p. 218). He quotes another from Kenya’s President Kenyatta: “Just as Africa opens up to China, China must open up to Africa” (p. 219). In concluding, Daniel Large cautions on the need to refine China-Africa relations in order to accommodate the complexity of the China-African reality. He also foresees that the diminished economic capacity of China due to the COVID-19 pandemic might hamper China’s ability to sustain its committed African investments, which would cause more uncertainty for the future of China-Africa relations.  

Although Large addresses the China-Africa issue in this volume, many of his insights, references, and interpretations can reach beyond Africa and serve as a paradigm for understanding China’s relations towards other regions, such as Latin America, Southeast Asia, and the Middle East. As Large mentions, China – consciously or otherwise – takes a Sino-centric stance in relation to other nations regarded as much smaller. There exists a subtle hegemonic mentality despite the flowery diplomatic language. China emphasizes the uniformity of policy towards a region – be it Africa, Latin America, or Southeast Asia – and often overlooks the diversities within and between these nations whom China has to deal with on an individual basis. Moreover,  China relates more with the elite political leaders, a state-to-state relation, than with the general population, such that its African approaches are often met by xenophobic resistance from local populaces against China.  

There are two minor issues that this reviewer wishes would have been more present in the book: religion and intelligence operations. At one point, Large mentions that an African pastor was liked in China (p. 164). The role of African churches, several tens in Guangzhou alone, as well as African Muslim communities in Yewu, bring in religious elements to Chinese society, challenging the Chinese authority and its tight control over religious affairs. Also, the active proselyting nature of some Chinese Protestant communities in major African cities – from Cairo to Cape Town – play an interesting role, as their objectives may not necessarily coincide with the political agenda of Beijing vis-à-vis Africa. The Buddhist influence from Shaolin Temple and the Taiwan-based Buddhist Chi Tsu Charity Foundation, which have volunteers working in over 20 African countries, have been introducing Buddhism in various forms to African. This adds a new dimension to the already complicated China-Africa relations.

In the section on security issues, Large highlights the significance of China’s military base in Djibouti as well as Chinese UN peacekeeping forces – specifically, in reference to China’s concern over security issues. It would have been interesting if Large had incorporated China’s intelligence operations in Africa as well. Such programs were well known to have promoted militant revolution during the 1960s-1980 and to monitor and struggle against Taiwan’s diplomatic activities during the 1980s-1990s. In the current era, they monitor internet data flow in and out of Africa via the China-built internet system, with a clearing house in Djibouti under the control of Chinese telecom firms.

Regardless of these two minor points, this volume by Daniel Large is perhaps currently the most comprehensive and up-to-date scholarly work on China-Africa relations. The book elevates the discussion beyond current diametric views. It explores the fundamental differences of political culture, which is relevant not only for China-Africa relations but also for China’s other foreign relations. It is a must-read for serious students of China’s international relations.