In this exclusive interview, Professor David Shinn, a former top U.S. diplomat and now an Adjunct Professor of International Affairs at George Washington University’s Elliot School of International Affairs discusses a few significant points in his forthcoming book on China-Africa.
In the email conversation with Kester Kenn Klomegah for IDN, he also offers in-depth views on China’s valuable contribution to various economic sectors especially infrastructure development spanning these three decades and finally on the possible implications of Russia-China collaboration in Africa.
Professor Shinn has a diverse career in the foreign service of the United States, including his ambassadorships to Ethiopia and Burkina Faso. He is a frequent commentator in the news media on political issues, has provided consultancy to the U.S. government on Horn of Africa related matters as well as Sino-African relations. Here are the interview excerpts:
What prompted you to write this book? Could you share some of your experiences while researching specifically for this book?
Josh Eisenman and I are writing a second book on China-Africa following our 2012 China and Africa: A Century of Engagement. Since that book came out, a cottage industry has developed around books and journal articles dealing with the China-Africa relationship. But there has been relatively little done, especially as an authored book, on the security and political relationship. Our new book is intended to help fill that gap.
The book has been about four years in the making. We jointly did most of our field research in China in 2017, a major trip to Africa in 2018, and then brief individual trips to China and Africa in 2019. COVID-19 intervened in 2020.
We had our share of interesting experiences. On one occasion, I was making a solo trip by train from Shanghai to Zhejiang Normal University but failed to depart the train at the appropriate stop. Chinese trains only stay a few minutes at each stop. I had to continue to the next city, and then catch a return train to the stop that I missed. The Chinese personnel on the train, where every seat was occupied, were not pleased but helpful and surprisingly understanding. I was embarrassed and obviously quite late for my meetings.
We asked for and received in Accra, Ghana, a meeting with the Chinese ambassador, who even invited us to dinner. When we arrived for dinner, it turns out the ambassador had been one of my graduate students at George Washington University several years earlier. I guess this falls in the “it’s a small world” category.
What are the key or significant issues discussed in the book? Do African leaders see some of the controversial issues, in the same way, as you have discussed in the book?
The book covers the traditional state-to-state relationship but emphasizes relations between the Communist Party and African ruling parties. It also reviews how China engages with Africans in sub-regional organizations and broader groupings that include African members. There is a section on the propaganda role of the educational, media, and cultural relationship. The remainder of the book focuses on security issues: China’s security interests, strategy, threats it faces, tools for responding to threats, maritime security, and more recent technological and informational security.
From what you have just mentioned, in terms of sustainable development, what sectors still remain in critical state or lag far behind and need improvement especially for millions of the population in the rural areas of Africa?
The book, because of its emphasis on the political and security relationship, only deals with sustainable development in passing. Based on other work I have done, I would argue that the rural parts of most African countries still lag significantly behind inefficient all-weather transportation systems, access to electricity, and access to broadband. This is perhaps the primary reason why the industry has been so slow to develop in rural areas in Africa. In fact, these issues apply to some urban areas where there may also be shortages of key skills and inefficient port operations.
So, in your objective views and from research experience, what have been the key obstacles and challenges in realizing full-fledged development in Africa? Do you think China has helped in some of the development challenges during these thirty years?
While the book is written from a Western perspective, it incorporates at every turn China’s official policy and strategy and African reaction to that policy. It is difficult to generalize African reaction because it is so varied except to say that African governments have been most accommodating of Chinese requests, while much of African civil society has been much more skeptical.
China has contributed, albeit at a cost to African governments, positively to the improvement of infrastructure on the continent. It has built dams for creating hydropower, constructed roads and railroads, added to port infrastructure, and established IT networks. But nearly all these projects have been paid for by loans from international financial institutions, private banks, and bilateral lenders such as China. According to the International Monetary Fund, six African countries are now in debt distress and fifteen are at high risk of debt distress. A few of the projects may also turn out to be economically nonviable.
There are global players actively and concretely working in Africa. What is your view of Russia, for instance, teaming up with China in Africa? Can both have a unified approach on issues, programs and projects, affecting Africa?
China-Russia collaboration in Africa is an interesting development and certainly worth watching in the coming years. The two countries have tended to vote the same way in the United Nations Security Council on African sanction issues. More recently, there have been efforts to coordinate policies concerning Africa. In 2021, the Russian International Affairs Council and the Institute of International and Strategic Studies of Peking University published a joint report titled “China-Russia Bilateral Cooperation in Africa.”
On the other hand, China and Russia are commercial competitors in Africa, although Russia has competed successfully in only a few areas such as nuclear power development, space launches, and the energy and mineral sectors. China is Africa’s largest trading partner while Russian trade is minimal but growing mainly in North Africa. Russia does sell more arms to Africa than does China. In almost all the other economic sectors, China is far more important to Africa than Russia, which does not have the resources to compete with China.
There has been limited China-Russia military cooperation in Africa. Last year, for example, ships from the Russian and Chinese navies participated in a joint exercise with the South African navy. But there are also important differences in China’s and Russia’s security strategy in Africa.
China has been active in supporting UN peacekeeping operations while Russia has made minor contributions. China has shown no interest so far in engaging in kinetic military activity in Africa, but Russia has sanctioned military operations in the Central African Republic, Sudan, Libya, and Mozambique by the mercenary Wagner Group, which seems to have close ties to President Putin. I doubt that China has any interest in supporting such activity.
Is it a geopolitical approach to counteract the United States and European Union members (especially France) in Africa? What do you think?
I suspect that China-Russia collaboration in Africa will be limited to a narrow range of issues, and it is probably driven mostly by their mutual hostility towards the West, especially the United States. Should there be an improvement at some point in US-China or US-Russia relations, there will likely be a decline in Russia-China collaboration in Africa. The same argument applies to European Union countries, especially France, which is highly engaged in Africa.
Other outside players may also impact China-Russia cooperation or lack thereof in Africa. China-India competition in the Indian Ocean probably figures into China’s calculations concerning Russia in the Indian Ocean region. Russia probably factors Turkey’s activities in countries such as Libya and Egypt in how it deals with China in these countries. It goes without saying that all these countries are acting in their own interest and not in the interests of Africa, although there may be a coincidental overlap of interests.