GW Alumni Authored Book on China’s Engagement in Africa | GW Today | The George Washington University

Two graduates of George Washington University, who co-authored the book “China’s Relations with Africa: A New Era of Strategic Engagement,” led a discussion on Friday at the Elliott School of International Affairs that examined the tactics and methods of Chinese engagement across the continent of Africa. 

Jennifer Cooke, the director of the Institute for African Studies at GW, moderated the discussion. “I am just delighted today to host this event, not just because the book itself is timely and important, but because it gives us a chance to boast a bit about two distinguished alumni of GW,” Cooke said. 

David H. Shinn, B.A. ’63, M.A. ’64, PhD ’80 teaches African studies at the Elliott School and is a nonresident scholar at the Middle East Institute. He served in the U.S. Foreign Service for 37 years, with postings in Lebanon, Kenya, Tanzania, Mauritania, Cameroon and Sudan.  Shinn also served as U.S. ambassador to Burkina Faso and Ethiopia.

Joshua Eisenman, B.A. ’00, is an associate professor of politics at the Keough School of Global Affairs at the University of Notre Dame and a senior fellow in China studies at the American Foreign Policy Council. Eisenman’s research focuses on the political economy of China’s development and foreign relations with the United States and the Global South—particularly Africa. 

Cooke asked the authors in what ways China’s geopolitical calculation around Africa has shifted over the years and what is the motivating factor behind the shift. 

“What has changed, I think, is the focus in the first half of this century was more on the economic side of the China-Africa relationship,” Shinn said. “Now, when you look at it, there’s been a real shift to a focus on the security and the political side, and how that plays into China’s position in the world.” 

Shinn said the 54 countries in Africa tend to vote along similar lines, and by gaining those countries’ influence, China gains significant support for its position at the United Nations and other international organizations. 

It’s a strategic move, Shinn said, that furthers China’s goal of trying to be the leader of the Global South. “An awful lot of the Global South is Africa because of the numbers,” Shinn said. “And China realizes that, and they are making an enormous effort to try to cultivate that group of countries for supporting their definition of the rules and regulations for how the world is run in the coming decades.” 

Addressing how China is cultivating connections across the continent, Eisenman pointed to a unique strategy by China to engage directly with political parties across the political spectrum, in some cases building relationships with both the ruling and opposition parties. 

“China is looking to engage with African political parties to develop a party-to-party linkage in addition to the linkage through the government-to-government channel,” Eisenman said. “They think it helps them keep track of the political scene better so if there is a change in power, they can keep track with what’s going on, so they’ll engage political parties from across the political spectrum.” 

Eisenman said what China is doing represents a very distinct type of engagement from traditional diplomacy. 

Another aspect of the China- Africa relationship, Shinn explained, is the loans many African countries have received from China. Shinn said there is a common misconception that has led to Chinese loans to African countries being labeled as foreign direct investment. 

“Many of these loans out of China are at commercial rates,” Shinn said. “In other words, they’re about the same as you get from a private bank. They’re not aid. The Africans have to pay it all back with interest at commercial rates.” 

The reason the loans are important to African countries, Shinn explained, is because they can’t receive the loans from anywhere else. “It’s not Chinese investment in Africa. It’s African investment in Africa,” Shinn said. 

Eisenman said China is changing its approach to how it hands out loans as part of its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which is a massive infrastructure project that aims to stretch around the globe. The vision, launched under President Xi Jinping, involves China financing billions of dollars of investment in roads, railways and other infrastructure across Eurasia and Africa.

Eisenman said he’s heard from officials involved with the BRI that because there have been issues with trying to get loans repaid in the past, China is stricter with the loans it is willing to give out. 

“The Chinese spigot has been turned off,” Eisenman said. “It used to be that they would come and say, ‘We want to do X, Y, Z’, and the Chinese would say, ‘Great, we’re not interfering in internal affairs. Here’s your money. Pay it back with interest,’ but now they’re looking at things a lot more closely.”  

Instead of grandiose projects, loans are now mainly going to targeted projects that have been thoroughly scrutinized and appear reliable. 

Following the discussion portion of the event, the authors took questions from the audience. 

One question asked whether the presence of Confucius Institutes in Africa is an attempt to influence more pro-Chinese attitudes across the continent. Confucius Institutes are educational institutions that offer instruction in Chinese language and culture at universities around the world. 

Shinn said there are about 64 Confucius Institutes across the continent of Africa. When opening the institutes, China initially funds the project with the hope after five years, it will become self-sustaining. 

“It doesn’t always work out,” Shinn said. “So I think China’s being a little careful. They don’t want to go too fast with these things for fear that they’ll just end up creating structures that they have to pay for until the cows come home.” 

He added that the institutes are still useful to China’s goals because they serve as a funnel to get students in Africa to learn Chinese or participate in study abroad programs at Chinese universities. 

“It helps build up the people-to-people contact between China and Africa,” Shinn said. 

Friday’s discussion touched on several topics that are mentioned in greater detail in the book, which offers further analysis of contemporary political and security relations between China and Africa.


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