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What is China up to in Africa? Read this book.

Lina Benabdallah walks us through the dynamics of Beijing-style network building.

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.

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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 in 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.

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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 militaries to participate in peacekeeping missions on the continent.

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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 study 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 in personal relationships are aimed at “[c]reating 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 in that China is not particularly interested in sharing Africa-produced 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 understanding China’s role in the world today.

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