President Biden timed his first call with Chinese President Xi Jinping for the eve of the Lunar New Year holiday. The two leaders discussed a number of global challenges, with Biden being open to “practical, results-oriented engagements when it advances the interests of the American people and those of our allies.” Biden also raised U.S. concerns about issues related to Hong Kong, Xinjiang and Taiwan. As expected, Xi pushed back, saying these were internal matters.
China policy is a top priority for the Biden administration. In addition to addressing trade concerns, climate change and global health during the coronavirus pandemic, the administration will likely face domestic challenges coming from hard-liners in Congress less willing to support any kind of cooperation with China. Here’s an example: During Senate confirmation hearings for Linda Thomas-Greenfield, Biden’s nominee for U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, several Republican senators suggested Thomas-Greenfield was not sufficiently critical of China’s activities in Africa.
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Senate Republicans also took issue with Thomas-Greenfield’s 2019 speech at a Confucius Institute housed at Savannah State University. In that speech, Thomas-Greenfield expressed cautious enthusiasm for the potential of cooperative relations between the United States and China in Africa. While that Confucius Institute, along with many others in the United States, has since closed its doors, most seasoned China-Africa researchers and followers were left wondering: What was so offensive about Thomas-Greenfield’s statements?
Over the past several years, U.S. policymakers have tried to outdo themselves with their hard-line positions on China. Nowhere has this been clearer than in their scrutiny of Chinese activities in Africa. In 2018, for instance, senators Christopher A. Coons (D-Del.) and Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) warned about China’s military involvement in Djibouti. Others expressed concerns over the widespread adoption of Huawei technology in Africa and China’s role in debt diplomacy and potential asset seizures. Often, these narratives circulate without facts to back the claims. Indeed, the U.S. strategy to “counter” China in Africa (and elsewhere) has resulted in generalizations about China-Africa relations that depict Chinese officials and companies as predators and Africans as their hapless victims.
But a growing community of scholars is producing research pointing out the inaccuracies of this narrative. Researchers based in Africa, China, the United States and elsewhere are studying many aspects of China-Africa ties, and the U.S. reactions to them. To date, much of this rich research is published primarily in academic journals, which means it seldom reaches public audiences. Recognizing the need to strengthen the linkages between the China-Africa academic/research community and the policymakers and influencers, in 2019, through the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies China Africa Research Initiative (SAIS-CARI), we organized a writing-for-impact workshop to help scholars share their work with policy audiences.
SAIS-CARI, which promotes evidence, analysis and collaboration in China-Africa research, hosted the first writing workshop in October 2019. Guest speakers from The Monkey Cage, Axios, Bridging the Gap and the China Africa Project worked with an initial group of China-Africa researchers to translate their research into short, accessible essays for public and policy audiences. This series will publish some of the research from workshop participants.
Over the next few Fridays, TMC readers will find timely analyses on urgent topics affecting Africa — issues such as Chinese debt relief measures, China’s Belt and Road infrastructure projects, covid-19 and health diplomacy, and how U.S.-China tech wars are playing out across the continent. Job creation, sharing knowledge and environmental impacts of Chinese activities — areas of concern highlighted by African governments, nongovernmental groups, and citizens, as well as China-Africa scholars — are also addressed in the series. Two of the essays will focus specifically on African agency and capacity to manage relations with China.
The series demonstrates the myriad complexities involved in Chinese engagement across the African continent. In particular, several of the essays highlight the roles of private Chinese individuals and organizations (which have little to do with the Chinese government), as well as the broad range of African stakeholders involved in trade and other interactions. Shedding light on these topics and providing fact-based analysis is important not only to understand China-Africa relations but also to better orient U.S. foreign policy toward Africa and China. At least in Africa, the evidence indicates that U.S.-China relations are not a zero-sum game.
Yoon Jung Park is associate director at SAIS-CARI and an adjunct professor in African studies at Georgetown University.
Lina Benabdallah is assistant professor of politics and international affairs at Wake Forest University, and a nonresident research associate at SAIS-CARI. Follow her on Twitter @LBenabdallah.