Within international relations theory and foreign policy circles, there is considerable interest in understanding China’s rise to power.
In an exciting new book, Shaping the Future of Power: Knowledge Production and Network-Building in China-Africa Relations (University of Michigan Press, 2020), Lina Benabdallah explores the integrated roles of social relations, knowledge production and power in China’s foreign relations
She argues that China’s various types of encounters with countries in the Global South are very different from the behaviour and investment strategies of the United States and European countries.
In addition to infrastructure projects, which typically are the image of China-Africa relations, there is an entirely different set of activities that are not always visible.
It is thus simply not enough to look at the amount of loans, aid and foreign direct investments originating from China. While these material factors are important, Benabdallah argues that we must not ignore the investments made in people-to-people relations and human resource development in China-Africa relations. Indeed, relations and relationality are central to China’s foreign policy and diplomatic conduct.
China deploys social capital and relational productive power on the African continent through knowledge production via human resource development and professionalisation programmes. These include a wide range of training sessions, exchanges and study visits. Such investments in human resource development expand Beijing’s network of connections with military officers, civil servants, journalists and regular citizens. They also act as spaces for expert knowledge production and norm diffusion.
My impression is that China has been quite successful in branding its model of development on the African continent. In doing do, it has tried to project a humble approach rather than one of arrogance. Although it highlights aspects of its development record that others can try to emulate, Beijing seldom proclaims itself to be the best in the world. Benabdallah describes how Beijing undertakes a dual performative role in its foreign relations with African countries.
On the one hand, it highlights that it is the largest developing country in the world—something and I’ve heard Chinese ambassadors repeatedly mention in their speeches. This identity is very important in cultivating realistic expectations under the auspices of South-South Cooperation. But in the book, Benabdallah also describes another function that China performs—that of a big power.
Beijing pursues a pragmatic approach while playing on these dual identities. It can activate the big power identity when it confronts the United States while it may choose to keep a lower profile in areas where the votes of the Global South matter to China.
In order to truly understand China-Africa relations, we should not just count visible projects, but also look into investments in human capital and social capital.