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What is China really doing in Africa?

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Chinese policy is a top priority for the Biden administration. In addition to tackling trade issues, climate change and global health during the coronavirus pandemic, the administration is likely to face national challenges from hardliners in Congress less willing to support any kind of cooperation with China. Here is an example: during Senate confirmation hearings For Linda Thomas-Greenfield, Bidens’ candidate for US ambassador to the United Nations, several Republican senators have suggested that Thomas-Greenfield was not sufficiently critical of China’s activities in Africa.

Senate Republicans also challenged Thomas-Greenfields’ 2019 speech at a Confucius Institute hosted at Savannah State University. In this speech, Thomas-Greenfield expressed cautious enthusiasm for the potential of the cooperative relationship between the United States and China in Africa. While this Confucius Institute, along with many others in the United States, has since closed its doors, most China-Africa scholars and seasoned followers have wondered: what was so offensive about the statements? by Thomas-Greenfields?

Over the past few years, American policymakers have tried to outdo themselves with their radical stances on China. Nowhere was this clearer than in their scrutiny of Chinese activities in Africa. In 2018, for example, Senators Christopher A. Coons (D-Del.) And Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) Warned against China’s military involvement in Djibouti. Others have expressed concern over the widespread adoption of Huawei technology in Africa and China’s role in debt diplomacy and potential asset foreclosures. Often these accounts circulate without facts to back up the claims. Indeed, the US strategy to counter China in Africa (and elsewhere) has resulted in generalizations about China-Africa relations that describe Chinese officials and companies as predators and Africans as their unfortunate victims.

But a growing community of researchers is producing research highlighting the inaccuracies of this account. Researchers based in Africa, China, the United States and elsewhere are studying many aspects of China-Africa relations and the United States’ reactions to them. To date, much of this rich research is published primarily in academic journals, which means it rarely reaches the public. Recognizing the need to strengthen the links between the China-Africa academic / research community and policymakers and influencers, in 2019, through the China Africa Research Initiative of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS-CARI), we organized a writing workshop for impact to help researchers share their work with political 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 China Africa Project worked with an initial group from China – African researchers need to translate their research into short and accessible essays for the public and policy makers. This series will publish some of the research of workshop participants.

Over the coming Fridays, TMC readers will find timely analysis on pressing topics affecting African issues such as China’s debt relief measures, China’s Belt and Road infrastructure projects, covid-19 and health diplomacy, and how the US-China technology wars play out across the continent. Job creation, share knowledge and environmental impacts Chinese activities, areas of concern highlighted by African governments, non-governmental groups and citizens, as well as China-Africa academics are also discussed in the series. Two of the essays will focus specifically on the African agency and the ability to manage relations with China.

The series demonstrates the myriad of complexities involved in Chinese engagement across the African continent. In particular, several of the essays highlight the role of Chinese individuals and private organizations (which have little to do with the Chinese government), as well as the wide range of African actors involved in trade and other interactions. Shedding light on these topics and providing factual analysis is important not only to understand Sino-African relations, but also to better orient US foreign policy towards Africa and China. At least in Africa, the evidence indicates that the US-China relationship is not a zero-sum game.

Yoon Jung Park is Associate Director of SAIS-CARI and Assistant Professor of African Studies at Georgetown University.

Lina Benabdallah is Assistant Professor of Politics and International Affairs at Wake Forest University, and a Non-Resident Research Associate at SAIS-CARI. Follow her on Twitter @LBenabdallah.

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