China’s Diplomacy in Eastern and Southern Africa

China's Diplomacy in Eastern and Southern Africa

Author(s): Seifudein Adem

ISBN:           978-1-4094-4709-2

Publisher:  Ashgate Publishing Limited

Year:           2013

Price:          £58.50

Reviewed by Christian Straube, PhD candidate, Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology, Germany.

Adem’s China’s Diplomacy in Eastern and Southern Africa represents an extensive collection of articles on contemporary Sino-African relations with a focus on Eastern and Southern Africa. The volume’s regional approach produces a differentiated look on the diversity of Sino-African relations. It counters the imbalance between the nation-state, the People’s Republic of China (PRC), and the continent, Africa, within the existing China-Africa literature.

The ten articles are introduced by a foreword by Shaw (p. xi-xiv) and Adem’s preface (p. xv-xviii), and concluded by Thomas’ historical analysis of the post-1955 Sino-African relationship (p. 215-231) and Adem’s reflection on the China-Africa discourse (p. 233-248). An index is attached at the end of the volume (p. 249-255).

The contributions cover eight countries: Ethiopia (Adem, p. 147-165), Kenya (Mazrui, p. 1-25; Onjala, p. 63-85), Madagascar (Ramiandrisoa, Razafindravonoa & Rafalimanana, p. 167-187), Somalia (Pham, p. 41-61), Sudan (Large, p. 127-146), Tanzania (Mazrui, p. 1-25; Kamata, p. 87-105), Uganda (Kannyo, p. 107-126) and Zambia (Hampwaye & Kragelund, p. 27-39; Bwalya, p. 189-213). They include political and economic aspects of the Sino-Africa relationship based on a wide range of methodologies: descriptive analyses, literature and media reviews, several types of interviews and statistical analyses.

Adem’s volume is written for scholars of Sino-African relations, but also for those who seek to understand political and economic developments in the respective African countries: political scientists, economists, anthropologists and historians.

The historical perspective on Sino-African relations of many of the articles greatly contributes to an understanding of the present. In contrast, relating Sino-African relations to its impact on the role of the United States in Africa reveals little. This notion is backed by the authors themselves who hardly relate to the post-American scenario described by Shaw in the foreword (p. xi-xiv). They seldom go into the outcomes that the PRC’s engagement with Africa may bare for the United States. This fact reveals the intrinsic weakness of the entire China-Africa discourse, also recently put forward by Hirono and Suzuki (2014): Is the China-Africa discourse about China and Africa or the declining influence of “the West” on the African continent?

Adem attempts to answer this question by first introducing three discourse positions: Sino-optimists, Sino-pragmatists and Sino-pessimists (p. 147, 235). What becomes evident from these positions is that everyone within the discourse has an agenda, because “[to] choose or single out a topic for investigation is not a neutral act” (p. 238). In a second step, Adem reveals that the Sino-optimist stance is predominant in African countries as opposed to European countries or the United States. Here, Sino-pragmatism evolved as a reaction to Sino-pessimism (p. 244). Finally, like other scholars in the field (He, 2007; Kitissou, 2007; Alden, Large and Soares de Oliveira, 2008; Bräutigam, 2009; Power and Mohan, 2010), Adem acknowledges the wider context of the Sino-African relationship. The PRC’s position in the world has evolved and the country maintains a multitude of bilateral relations with other countries. In opposition to Tull (2006, p. 459), he concludes that “it was the pace rather than the scale of China’s activities in Africa which stimulated the imagination of many” (p. 243). Ultimately, the Sino-pessimist term “China threat” does not refer to the fact that China is not beneficial to Africa but that China in Africa is not beneficial to “the West”. Adem calls upon current scholars to reflect on this discrepancy in the China-Africa discourse and to start “a discourse about the discourse” (p. 246).

Adem’s volume also acknowledges the call by Mohan and Lampert (2012) to reinsert African agency and the concept of reciprocity into Sino-African relations. This is best exemplified by Large’s contribution on Sino-South Sudanese relations (p. 127-146). Several other authors also give evidence for the active role of African actors by stating that, in Kannyo’s words, “the question ultimately comes down to the capacity of the state, the entrepreneurial sector and civil society in general to ensure that the relationship is truly a ‘win-win’ rather than ‘win-lose’ arrangement […]” (p. 123). In the context of Monson and Rupp’s (2013) recent appeal, the publication poses a vantage point for further studies that depart from the national level of analysis and penetrate everyday encounters between Chinese and African actors. How these further studies might look like, has been shown in the latest edition of the Journal of Current Chinese Affairs 43.1 by the German Institute of Global and Area Studies (GIGA).

The importance of historical antecedents as highlighted by Adem in the Preface and elucidated by the contributions’ authors is distinctive in Sino-African relations. As noted, several articles pay much needed attention to the relations’ past. Still, the importance of such historical developments can only be made evident by relating them to present events. In some of the articles, past and present of the Sino-African relations seem to be narrated detached from one another. For example, the historical continuity in the PRC’s diplomacy toward Tanzania could have been exemplified by drawing on the 2013 speech of Xi Jinping in Dar es Salaam. Not only was Tanzania the first African country on his first official trip abroad after assuming the highest political office in the PRC, Xi’s historical references also revealed how present the PRC’s previous engagements with Tanzania still are. His remarks connected the Sino-African past to its present and future.

Because of the loose understanding of the term “diplomacy” and the various contents that the articles cover, the publication’s title China’s Diplomacy in Eastern and Southern Africa is somewhat misleading. According to Satow (2006, p. 25), “diplomacy” is primarily linked to the official relations between national governments. Although the contributions focus on political initiatives and state actors within the Sino-African relationship, these are neither representing only national governments nor are they exclusively Chinese. African initiatives and economic outcomes are also discussed in detail. Furthermore, the analyses are predominantly based on African and Western sources. Chinese sources are comparably rare. Eventually, the 2006 “China’s African Policy” by the Foreign Ministry of the PRC does not play any role in the entire publication. As King (2013, p. 2-7) has shown, an analysis of the PRC’s White Papers reveals in detail the diplomatic and historical character of the Chinese engagement with Africa.

However, Adem’s volume greatly contributes to the existent literature and is recommended to everyone interested in the PRC’s overall engagement with Africa and particular national governments likewise. The regional focus acknowledges the heterogeneity of contemporary Sino-African relations. Retracing economic developments to political initiatives and actors deepens our understanding of the relations’ trajectories. The various methodologies used in these articles shed light on the subject matter from several angles and underlines its complexity.

China’s Diplomacy in Eastern and Southern Africa does not only deliver in-depth analyses on China-Africa relations but also invites scholars to review the discourse on how we perceive new developments initiated by the encounters of Chinese and Africans.


Alden, Chris, Daniel Large and Ricardo Soares de Oliveira. “Introduction.” In China Returns to Africa: A Rising Power and a Continent Embrace, edited by Chris Alden, Daniel Large and Ricardo Soares de Oliveira, 1-25. New York: Columbia University Press, 2008.

Bräutigam, Deborah. The Dragon’s Gift: The Real Story of China in Africa. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009.

Foreign Ministry of the People’s Republic of China. “China’s African Policy.” Accessed January 22, 2013.

German Institute of Global and Area Studies. Journal of Current Chinese Affairs 43.1 (2014).

He, Wenping. “The Balancing Act of China’s Africa Policy.” China Security 3.3 (2007): 23-40.

Hirono, Miwa and Shogo Suzuki. “Why Do We Need ‘Myth-Busting’ in the Study of Sino–African Relations?” Journal of Contemporary China 23.87 (2014): 1-19.

King, Kenneth. China’s Aid & Soft Power in Africa: The Case of Education and Training. Woodbridge: James Currey, 2013.

Kitissou, Marcel. Africa in China’s Global Strategy. London: Adonis & Abbey, 2007.

Mohan, Giles and Ben Lampert. “Negotiating China: Reinserting African Agency into China-Africa Relations.” African Affairs 112.446 (2012): 92-110.

Monson, Jamie and Stephanie Rupp. “African and China: New Engagements, New Research.” African Studies Review 56.1 (2013): 21-44.

Power, Marcus and Giles Mohan. “Towards a critical geopolitics of China’s engagement with African development.” Geopolitics 15 (2010): 462-495.

Satow, Ernest. “Diplomacy; and The Language and Forms of Diplomatic Discourse.” In Diplomacy: Theory of Diplomacy, edited by Christer Jönsson and Richard Langhorne. Vol. 1 of Diplomacy, edited by Christer Jönsson, 25-50. London: Sage, 2006.

Tull, Denis M. “China’s Engagement in Africa: Scope, Significance and Consequences.” The Journal of Modern African Studies 44.3 (2006): 459-479.

Xinhua News Agency. “Xi Jinping zai Tansangniya Nileier guoji huiyi zhongxin de yanjiang 习近平在坦桑尼亚尼雷尔国际会议中心的演讲 [Xi Jinping’s speech at the Tanzania Nyerere International Conference Centre].“ Accessed April 18, 2014.

Suggested citation: 

Christian Straube (2014). Review of “China’s Diplomacy in Eastern and Southern Africa”, by Seifudein Adem,  East Asian Integration Studies, Vol. 7, no.13, Internet file: