Joshua Eisenman on “China’s Relations with Africa: A New Era of Political and Security Engagement”

Joshua Eisenman is an Associate Professor of Politics at the Keough School of Global Affairs at the University of Notre Dame, where has has been since 2019. Eisenman has been a visiting faculty member at Fudan University (summer 2017), Peking University (summer 2016), and NYU–Shanghai (2011–12). He was a policy analyst on the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission (2003–05) and has been senior fellow for China studies at the American Foreign Policy Council since 2006. Before coming to Notre Dame, he was assistant professor of public affairs at the University of Texas at Austin. Eisenman holds a PhD in political science from UCLA, an MA in International Relations from Johns Hopkins University’s Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) where he studied at the Hopkins-Nanjing Center, and a BA in East Asian Studies from The George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs.
Thomas Falci '23 interviewed Dr. Joshua Eisenman on March 24, 2023.
Photograph and biography courtesy of Dr. Joshua Eisenman.

With your new book China’s Relations with Africa: A New Era of Strategic Engagement soon to be released, can you briefly summarize what the goals and objectives of this book are, and why you and Ambassador Shinn were prompted to write it now?

Ambassador Shinn and I saw this as an emerging issue back in 2016 and 2017. We witnessed China’s strategic relationship with Africa – specifically the politics and security – becoming increasingly important under Xi Jinping. For this new book, we traveled to China and African countries to do research and conduct countless interviews, we conducted surveys of Chinese communities to determine their security concerns, and collected systematic data on the CPC’s exchanges with African political parties. I think this book fills a very important space in the literature and explains what we believe is one of the most important geopolitical phenomena of our time. Given Ambassador Shinn’s expertise on Africa, and my work on China, we had a unique and comprehensive ability to explain this emerging relationship. Out of this book many others will be able to look at the issues we've talked about and use them as starting places for future research. The book project was driven largely by, to use a baseball analogy, a ‘hit him where they ain't’ approach. It was something we saw that we had a comparative advantage in, and that was emerging as increasingly important, but hadn't yet been recognized as such.

How have the United States and its allies responded to China’s project to expand its global engagement and influence, something that as you write “challenges the dominant Western liberal world order”?

Ultimately, China is dissatisfied with the current world order and seeks to supplant that world order with its own, something Xi Jinping calls the “Community of Shared Future for Mankind.” A sub-community of that is the “China-Africa Community of Shared Future” which both underscores and bolsters the larger community. With this sub-community, Africa as a region also takes on an over-weighted position in China’s foreign policy. The larger idea here is that China will be the leader of the Global South and help these nations in fighting forces of “imperialism” from the United States and its Western allies, and present them with what China call a better form of “democracy.” The effectiveness of this, however, has been varied. Autocrats in the region who already hold that position are more than happy to have it reaffirmed by the leaders of the largest country in the world. At the same time, in places where there is true representative democracy, those leaders are increasingly unconvinced that what China’s doing is better. So ultimately, it is uncertain how much lip service is being paid to Xi’s “Community of Shared Future for Mankind” versus actual adherence to this Sino-centric and hierarchical idea.

In terms of a United States and Western response to China’s project, there’s been a lot of hand wringing in Western capitals, about how to “respond to China.” However, I'm always concerned about American overreach because that's been the downfall of many great powers in the past. I am wary when I hear people say that we need to “beat the Chinese in Africa” as I am not sure that our system is well suited to that type of competition. I'm also not optimistic about creating institutions in the U.S. to compete with China in terms of lending lots of money to developing countries. China has spread a lot of money around and I don't think they will get much of it back. I don't think it was a debt trap, rather that they wanted both the success of their projects and to get paid back, as well as to be hailed internationally for what they are doing. Given that the money is likely not going to come back anytime soon, I don’t see why the United States would want to follow that approach.

How has the Chinese propaganda apparatus operated in Africa to promote a Sino-centric version of the world and simultaneously portray the United States and the West in a negative light? How successful is China’s propaganda in Africa? 

During the first decade of the 2000s it was a big question among China scholars about whether China's foreign policy was inherently anti-American or not. Most saw it as a soft balancing, rather than what theorists call a hard balancing. Those questions, however, have more or less been resolved because of recent comments from President Xi and others within the CPC that specifically call out the United States. Over the last few years, Chinese propaganda has taken a stark turn towards an anti-American lens which is part of an increasingly important juxtaposition that China is making between what it considers its successful democratic system and the United States’ chaos of liberal democracy. This narrative takes place in Chinese outlets, as well as media outlets that are close to China, such as Independent Online in South Africa. During a recent COP Summit, a Chinese media outlet released a story comparing the United States’ and the West’s climate change approach with that of China’s, and how China’s was a better strategy and one that did not abandon Africa. The narrative from China has become that the U.S. is leaving other nations behind and not being a good world power, and that China is doing a lot of great things for the world and looking to be a leader and advocate for the Global South.

This adds a much more assertive layer to the propaganda, but it hasn't necessarily made China any more attractive to Africans. What is clear is that the small percentage of those who watch Chinese propaganda regularly do hold a better view of China, but it is hard to know where the causal arrow is. Do they like China better and so they watch the propaganda, or do they watch the propaganda and therefore view China in a more positive light? Most people, however, don't get their information from Chinese outlets, or at least not willingly. China's propaganda increasingly tries to do what in the U.S. we call astroturfing, which is to disguise itself within the local media environment. It does this primarily through content sharing agreements, advertising, and paid promotions. The ideal situation for Beijing is when their propaganda content is localized and divorced from its original source. China’s is also involved in Africa-focused entertainment and apps, such as Vskit and Opera, that target Africa’s large youth population. 

Why, despite growing asymmetrical bilateral ties between China and African nations and a number of public blunders, including when Chinese technicians were accused of sending confidential AU communications back to Beijing from the new AU headquarters and numerous instances of racism between Chinese migrant workers and local African populations, have African nations continued to expand and strengthen relations with China?

At the core, it has to do with options. Often, ZTE and Huawei are the best and/or cheapest, and sometimes the only choice if you want to put in a 5G or 4G network. Thus, Chinese telecommunications companies have wired a lot of African countries. It's also easy financing. These companies and Chinese state-owned banks have long worked together to be financing, sometimes at concessional rates and sometimes not, these projects, particularly in Africa. In many cases, the money doesn’t even leave Beijing, it is just transferred from one state-owned-enterprise to another. Therefore, for African countries, these projects are easy, they are cheap and get done quickly, and are of reasonably good quality. When a country takes on Chinese equipment, however, they are also committed to using it in the future. Unlike when building one road or one building, when constructing a whole system using Huawei equipment, you likely have to repair it with Huawei equipment. This creates a long-term relationship, much like high tech arm sales do, where training, repairs, and new equipment are all needed by the original supplier, which not only provides a constant market, but also a sustained political relationship that American companies don’t have right now in the telecommunications sector in Africa. This is an area where, in a perfect the world, the U.S. would be competitive, but the truth is we aren’t and won’t be anytime soon.

How much has China’s security footprint grown in Africa? What are some of the key motivations behind China’s expanding security presence in Africa and its evolving “noninterference principle?”

For years, China has been increasing its economic interests along with the amount of Chinese people living on the continent. Anecdotal evidence suggests that the number of Chinese people living in Africa has fallen somewhat, but still numbers more than a million. Thus, the presence of Chinese people on the continent has also led to security issues. Some of these are simply because they have been at the wrong place at the wrong time. In Johannesburg, for example, Chinese people are known to carry large amounts of cash, making them ready targets for criminals. So personal, as well as business, security concerns are real and present on the continent. We interviewed some Chinese business people who hire private security firms and off-duty police and military personal to try and enhance security. It's not surprising that China has more private security companies and is generally getting more involved in that industry. In serious circumstances, it's also not surprising that they would evacuate, as they did in Libya and Yemen, their citizens using the PLA. Their base in Djibouti provides a logistical hub for actions like this to be conducted in ways that weren’t before possible. The protection of Chinese nationals and interests are driving a lot of China's increasing security presence on the continent, including peacekeeping, where China has gotten written into these agreements the protection of foreign nationals, which serves their interests. There is a lot of increased PLA activity in the Indian Ocean, even prior to COVID-19, and it is still very much up in the air whether or not China is going to create another base on the continent, but it is certainly something they are looking into. 

In terms of China’s non-interference policy, it is something that they have touted for a long time.  The idea is reciprocity. China wants others to respect its sovereignty and not interfere in, what it considers, its internal affairs. But as China's interests have grown, it's been more willing to get involved in African affairs. Moreover, in certain cases, like in the transfer of power from Robert Mugabe to Emmerson Mnangagwa in Zimbabwe, the Chinese sided with and supported Mnangagwa, supporting the change of power. In some countries, China has provided election supplies, such as hats and T-shirts, for certain preferred groups and candidates. And there have even been payments to certain African leaders. One of the most notable bribery cases was when Patrick Ho transferred illicit payments to African leaders through New York, which is also how he was ultimately caught and is now serving a three-year sentence in a U.S. prison. The evolution of China’s non-interference principle seems to be happening in fits and starts based on China needs. For instance, the creation of the Djibouti base was an adjustment to China’s previous no-basing policy, which was an extension of its non-interference principle. But China, has now moved past that. So, China’s non-interference principle is whatever Beijing defines it to be, and that definition seems to be evolving in fits and starts.

Do you see China reducing its investments in Africa economically and geopolitically in the coming years in order to concentrate its limited resources in the Indo-Pacific, which is the main theatre of U.S.-China rivalry? 

In terms of politics, China is likely to expand its political relationships in Africa, but not at the cost of relations in the Indo-Pacific region. They are not going to deploy large amounts of military forces to the African region. They’ll continue their anti-piracy missions and a certain amount of peacekeeping, the PLAN visits and port calls will continue, but I don’t think that those deployments are a threat to U.S. assets and partners compared to what we are seeing in the Indo-Pacific. But that doesn't mean that the PLAN won’t expand its engagement in the region. Just recently, the Chinese, South African, and Russian navies conducted joint exercises. These types of activities are likely to increase, but they are not necessarily a direct threat to the U.S., at least not at this point. With the exception of South Africa, however, African nations are militarily weak, especially in terms of naval and air capabilities, so working with them doesn’t give China much strategic advantage.

Thomas Falci '23Student Journalist

Book image by co-author, Joshua Eisenman

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