L. Benabdallah: Shaping the Future of Power

Shaping the Future of Power. Knowledge Production and Network-Building in China-Africa Relations

Benabdallah, Lina
204 S.
$ 29.95
Reviewed for Connections. A Journal for Historians and Area Specialists by
Alexander Dontsow, Leipzig University

This is a must-read book as it questions the classical Western understanding of how Chinese foreign policy is conducted in Africa. The author, Lina Benabdallah, is an assistant professor of politics and international affairs at Wake Forest University. In this book, she expounds on China’s foreign policy in Africa via the lens of increasing relational connections between China and the African continent. The main argument is that in contrast to the “traditional understanding” of power, as well as to the Western view of international relations capital, China’s African strategy cannot be accurately measured with the same instruments and concepts because its investments in human resource development programmes achieve results by different means, and therefore understanding power as relational and social will allow for a better examination of China’s foreign policy. To analyse her argument, the author introduces a framework to comprehend the role of social networks and relational capital in foreign policy-making.

The book comprises seven chapters. In the introduction, Benabdallah defines key terms and clarifies the methods of data collection. In the next chapter, she examines the historical progression of Global South solidarity in the contemporary period. Following, she presents a power perspective that emphasizes the “relating” aspect of international relations – which is the mechanism that links rationality, power, and foreign policy. She uses the example of China’s foreign policy in Africa to interpret power in relational terms. In the fourth chapter, the author explores the three main aspects of the relational productive power framework while focusing on the military dimension. She further discusses Chinese investments in media-centred professionalization programmes, which are still under-analysed and under-hypothesized. The author then focuses on the functions of cultural diplomacy of Confucius Institutes, language, teaching practices, and educational camps in cultural diffusion. The final chapter expands upon the African framework on the broader Belt and Road Initiative activity and the role of such foreign policy within the international order, both practice-wise and in terms of challenging existing international relations theory.

Throughout the entire book, Benabdallah conducts a targeted literature review to support her arguments. She relates to many scholars and experts and skilfully weighs up their positions while cleverly questioning the theoretical basis of the existing approaches as well as theorizing and contrasting classical international relations theories with relational and non-Western approaches. Furthermore, the book provides a rich ideational palette from the materials of institutions like the Academy for International Business Officials and China’s Ministry of Commerce. In her research, Benabdallah undertook field trips and numerous interviews. This helped with developing a framework based on the concept of relational productive power to consider China’s human development investments as both spaces for the production of Chinese expert knowledge and fields for the dissemination of Chinese values. The Foucauldian conceptualizations of knowledge as power and power as a producer of subjectivities and truth regimes, as well as relational network methods to power construction, were used to support the framework. So was Qin Yaqin’s presentation of the idea of guanxi in international relations, as well as his relational theory.

The findings demonstrate that with the rise of China comes the new perceivability of sharing experiences and models of interaction. This process attracts political elites from various states to embrace the Chinese characteristics of development. This especially applies to Africa, where interactions with Chinese actors strengthen affinity for an alternative to the Western model of development, which is characterized by state drive, unified advancement model, practices that promise administrative framework, social qualities, and financial designs. The appeal of such an economic and governance model is entwined with networking between political elites on both sides of forum diplomacy conducted via investments in training seminars, as well as military, cultural, linguistic, technological, and media capacities of African societies. Consequently, it bolsters China’s network of military officers, civil servants, journalists, and ordinary residents, as well as regulates knowledge creation and norm distribution.

The book’s three case studies on military, telecommunications, and cultural area demonstrate that contemporary foreign policy encounters have unique traits that necessitate the development of new theoretical frameworks for analysis. Accordingly, the author criticizes understanding international relations in the traditional Eurocentric sense and explains why it does not reflect actual Chinese policy-making (pp. 65–67). Benabdallah challenges the realist notion that once major powers reach a certain threshold of material capabilities then they will all act in the same way; she argues that it is a restrictive approach to assessing global politics (p. 149).

Indeed, China brands itself as a fellow developing power in Africa. But the book also demonstrates how the claims about promoting “African ways”, in practice, fall under the same category of power imbalance, as between Africa and former colonial powers. Despite putting emphasis on public diplomacy, the results of the foreign policy are characterized by the same dynamics of one-sided power projection. Furthermore, the difference in power capital between China and African states remains the same regardless of the effects of guanxi. Benabdallah compares contemporary Chinese diffusionist activities in Africa with the actions taken by the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) (pp. 86–87). However, the quick loss of support and disappearance of connections with the USSR in the late 1980s was apparent when the latter stopped providing support to African states. Therefore, although the actions of China surely make an impact, the effects of the Beijing consensus can arguably be researched more extensively.

Adding a little recommendation to this nonetheless essential writing, Benabdallah suggests subsequent studies to consider the agency of African states, which her research lacks. However, the results could be more revealing if other factors such as language-based and cultural attractiveness, production and import of knowledge, and historical practices on the continent were contrasted more between China and former colonial powers, rather than excessively with African actors. This may help to better explain the relational power dynamics. The author has made considerable efforts in doing so, but it could be done more extensively than with the examples provided. After all, French, English, and Arabic – not Chinese – remain the official languages of a majority of African countries.

That being said, Benabdallah has truly managed to create an indispensable work. While Steven Lukes’s theory focuses on cause and effect,1 she regards power as a process and not a possession and considers relational power to be constitutive of and the creation of meaning, actors, and other relations. With her research, she demonstrates that power flows through people, rather than applies to them. This makes the book genuinely relevant and highly important scientifically, as well as policy-wise. It enriches a theoretical framework of policy studies that increasingly demands an interdisciplinary approach, as well as serves as a basis for future research. I would most certainly suggest the book to anyone interested in the contemporary Chinese foreign policy strategy, regardless of their academic background and relationship with African studies.

1 Steven Lukes, Power. A Radical View, London 1974.

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