NEW BOOK: Africa-China Cooperation. Towards an African Policy on China?

In July 2017 the Africa-China Reporting Project, in partnership with the Institute for Global Dialogue (IGD) and the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung hosted a Symposium at Wits University’s Senate Room under the theme High time for a common integrated African policy on China.

See a full report of the event. Also see: South African and African agency towards China by Philani Mthembu.

The Symposium assembled key players in research and development, government and policy from Africa and China. The starting point of the event was to understand common African positions from which a common framework could be developed that could in turn be used to impact African agency and develop a common African policy framework towards China.  This Symposium was envisaged as the beginning of an ongoing process of discussion and networking to ultimately lead to a common African policy framework on China.

The Institute for Global Dialogue, one of the partners of the 2017 Symposium, has now published a new book building on these endeavours to develop a unified African policy towards China. Africa-China Cooperation. Towards an African Policy on China?, published in 2020 by Palgrave Macmillan, is edited by Philani Mthembu, Executive Director of the Institute for Global Dialogue asscociated with the University of South Africa (UNISA), and Faith Mabera, Senior Researcher at the Institute for Global Dialogue. The book features a total of ten chapters.  

In order to mark this important milestone, we conducted a short Q&A with the authors Philani Mthembu and Faith Mabera, which follows below.

How does the book follow on from the 2017 Symposium and how did the event add to the thinking behind the book?

With a focus on African agency, the Symposium brought together wide-ranging participants including scholars, academics, diplomats, government representatives, media and civil society. The symposium sought to achieve the following objectives:

  • To leverage South Africa’s co-chairmanship of the FOCAC mechanism to initiate dialogue on an Africa policy towards China
  • To initiate dialogue leading to a coherent and coordinated Pan-African approach to engagement with China; and
  • To consider broadly the role of external partners in developing a policy of Africa’s engagement with them

Following the success of the Symposium and the fruitful discussions therein, the Institute for Global Dialogue (IGD) sought to delve deeper into the research agenda and initiated a book research project to bring together a broad array of contributions to critically interrogate African agency in Africa-China relations and the nuanced views around a prospective coherent pan-African policy towards China.

Please provide a brief summary of the thinking behind the book and a breakdown of main themes.

This book offers a range of perspectives on the Africa-China partnership in the context of the Forum on China and Africa Cooperation (FOCAC). Incorporating historical, political, social and cultural dimensions, it offers innovative views on the Africa–China relationship that combine theory and practice, and critically examines the prospects of a Pan-African policy towards China, complementary to China’s comprehensive African policy. The chapters address a number of key questions, including: What steps are being taken to achieve a more coordinated approach and policy towards China on the African continent? Does Africa even need a collective strategy in the first place? How would a coherent policy framework affect Africa’s relations with Europe and other external partners? How do the pillars of the partnership align with the African Union’s Agenda 2063 and the United Nations’ 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development?

The contributors of the chapters in the book are sourced from African-based institutions, offering diverse and experienced African voices to the broadening discourse on Africa-China relations. As such, the book constitutes a Global South perspective to a crucial geopolitical development in the 21st century.

What has changed since the original discussions at the 2017 Symposium, and what makes the discussions in the book relevant/important today?

The earnest call for a more coordinated African position and policy framework towards China has persistently featured in academic and policy debates. More importantly, amid the recriminations and heightened geopolitical rivalry between the US and China that has played out in trade wars and mutual distrust, the rest of the world is at risk of getting caught in the middle of the great power competition and the tumult around a fraying liberal order. Furthermore, given the increased attention by global and rising powers on Africa as a key geopolitical and geostrategic site, in view of its potential both in political and economic terms, it is imperative for Africa to avoid taking sides in the ‘new Cold War’ and to enhance its agency and strategic policies in pursuing cooperation with a broad coalition of partners. Part of this learning process calls on Africa to examine what China’s evolving needs are and how China negotiates and leverages a range of strategic issues. It also means that Africans will increasingly need to diversify their trading relationships with external actors, in addition to strengthening their institutional capacities to boost integration into global value chains.

Hence, the book adds to the clarion call for enhanced African agency and advances the utility of enhanced coordination between individual nation-states, regional economic communities and the African Union when it comes to the continent’s relations with external powers in an evolving multipolar world order. The broad consensus across the contributions in the book is that greater coordination will enhance Africa’s agency in global politics in alignment with existing continental and regional development policy frameworks and initiatives.

Please provide some advice to academics/journalists covering this topic and any potential next steps.

The debate over an enhanced and coordinated approach to Africa’s strategic partnerships with external actors is likely to be a long drawn out one, especially when viewed in light of the continent’s growing geostrategic and geoeconomic importance. Africa-China cooperation has been the subject of much analysis over the past two decades and the trajectory of the partnership in the context of an emergent ‘Sinocentric’ world order calls for a broadened research agenda on how Africa can leverage its role and its agency in a multipolar world in flux. For instance, a key question is how Africa can enhance its agency by combining its market power (already underway through the African Continental Free Trade Area) and leveraging it with its voting power in multilateral fora?