China and Africa: A Century of Engagement by David H. Shinn and Joshua Eisenman, University of Pennsylvania Press: Philadelphia PA 19104, ISBN 978-0-8122-4419-9, 523 pp. (hardcover), $69.95
China’s diplomatic and economic initiatives in Africa are on the front pages almost daily, so it is a surprise that this book is, according to the authors, the first full-length, detailed book on this subject since the early 1970’s. In the four decades that have passed since then, we have experienced the end of the Cold War, the Cultural Revolution, the emergence of China as an economic superpower and more, and all of these changes have had a profound impact on the Peoples Republic, on Africa and on their relationships with each other.
A collaboration between a veteran diplomat, David H. Shinn, and China scholar Joshua Eisenman, China and Africa combines sweep and insight with detail and depth. From its chronology of China-Africa relations to its meticulous country-by-country survey of present-day relations, this book provides both a primer and a reference for a dynamic series of relationships.
At a time when China sends more troops to U.N. peacekeeping forces in Africa than any other member of the Security Council, China and Africa reminds us how recently Beijing’s military initiatives in the region began. Now the Peoples Liberation Army’s navy patrols the waters off the African coast, combating piracy and, perhaps most famously, evacuating Chinese workers from Libya. So even without formal military alliances or bases on the continent (contrasted with the U.S. drone bases and AFRICOM), Beijing projects its military hard power into the region.
And at a time when China has surpassed the United States as Africa’s largest trading partner, China and Africa reminds us that only a few decades ago, China’s economic footprint on the African continent was limited to a few Cold War showcase projects, such as the East African railway line in Tanzania and Zambia. Today, Chinese government and government-related businesses pursue billions of dollars in investment and infrastructure on the continent, and they are an economically important and highly visible presence across the continent.
This book also reminds us that one of the most controversial features of Beijing’s growing role in Africa’s economy is not new. Many in the West decry Beijing’s policy of furnishing economic assistance with no strings attached – that is, no conditions related to democratization or human rights. China and Africa’s authors urge us to read Beijing’s explicit policy declarations on this point going back many years, notably 1964’s “Eight Principles of Economic and Technical Aid.” There, quite clearly and concisely, Beijing announced its policy: “”The Chinese Government never asks for any privileges or attaches any conditions.”
And the authors relate anecdotes from history that are so contrary to a 21st-century frame of reference: We may be familiar with the voyages to Africa of Zheng He’s fleet, “comparable in size to the Spanish Armada,” well before Christopher Columbus set sail for the New World. But China and Africa traces face-to-face contact to its origins many centuries earlier, to reports of a cultural exchange in 112 BC, featuring the visit of an Egyptian mathematician and magician, dispatched to Xi’an by a Persian emperor.
And on the diplomatic front, China’s first diplomatic post on the African continent was not established until 1905. Seven years later, and still the only African posting, it was closed, and Chinese representation on the African continent was handed over to the United States.