This is a manifesto for developing Sino-African relations rather than an academic book. The author, Ngonlardje Kabra Mbaidjol, is a Chadian diplomat joined the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) agency in 1984. Among others he is a former UNHCR regional representative in the Central African Region (2000–2003), director of the New York UN High Commissioner for Human Rights office (2007–2009), director of the UNHCR Ethics Office in Geneva (2009–2012) and chairperson of the Ethics Committee of the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (2010–2015). He holds a PhD from the University of Geneva’s Graduate Institute of International Studies and Development (1985). Since 2012 he is working as an international consultant, based in New Jersey.
In this lean book (the main text, divided into eleven chapters, stretches over just 158 pages), Mbaidjol calls “for strategic” thinking of African states in engaging with the People’s Republic of China to benefit from economic and financial cooperation. The book is premised on the assumption that China “is nowadays a respectable global economic partner” (x). It offers “competitive trade opportunities, high investment returns, and other mutually advantageous ties” (ibid.). The book takes what some may would call a “refreshing” stance against any critical perspective on Sino-African relations. Rather than engaging with this scholarship – which, by the way, certainly represents the mainstream of academic work on this topic, and not just in the West –, Mbaidjol constructs a position which allegedly “condemns” or even “bans” Sino-African relations. It remains unclear whether this is an academic or a political position, and where it comes from. Writing against this “position”, the author furthermore claims that African countries are not yet fully prepared to engage with China. This statement, too, is not substantiated, but simply dropped as a pre-given.
From this vantage point, Mbaidjol introduces the 1955 Bandung Conference as the asserted historic beginning of South-South relations (chap. 2), then continues to discuss the nature of the Non-Aligned Movement (chap. 3) and the BRICS (chap. 4). These chapters could have provided an opportunity to seriously engage with some academic debate, but the author only very superficially refers to some texts, if at all (and the criteria for selecting these references remain unclear). The remaining chapters are dealing with China and its Asian neighbours and Asian regional institutions (chap. 4 and 5) as well as Chinese foreign aid, trade and foreign direct investment in Africa (chap. 7, 8 and 9). The core of the argument is presented in chapters 10 on “gaps and opportunities in Sino-Africa Relations” and 11 on “harmonizing legal and administrative infrastructures in Africa”.
In this book, “Africa” usually appears as a collective. There is little understanding, or interest, for historically different kinds of relationships between single African states and China; as there is also no attempt to understand the history of the relations between African countries and China as developed by the Organisation of African Unity (1963-002) and its successor, the African Union, or the various regional economic communities. Interestingly, the author always talks about “Sino-African” relations, rather than considering “Afro-Chinese” relations.
The book is published in a series called “International Comparative Social Studies”, edited by Mehdi P. Amineh. Like in many of the by now 49 volumes published in this series, there is little “comparison” involved in this particular book. Copy editing missed a number of issues, to start with in the first line of the text China is referred to as the “Popular Republic”!
Finally, there is a stark contrast between the length of the bibliography (pp. 159–184) and the rather minimalistic references to any academic debate in the text. The bibliography only serves as a token; the author does not know the academic debate and he clearly has no interest in it. The majority of references is a list of are loveless glued monographs – journal articles or publications in edited volumes do not exist. Mainly, Mbaidjol draws on (few) sources and news accessed through the internet – which are mainly meant to serve his memory. Quite surprisingly the book has received some acclaim, though only politically. In short, written from a practitioner’s point of view this text provides some legal and strategic orientation for connoisseurs of strengthened Sino-African relations, void of any critical academic reasoning or discussion current political debates in many African countries about relations with China. While in many places, the levels of enchantment have certainly increased, the conditions for engagement between African countries and China certainly still call for a serious academic debate.