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Reviewed by:
  • China’s New Role in Africa
  • Dorothy McCormick (bio)
Ian Taylor. China’s New Role in Africa. Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2009. x, 227 pp. Hardcover $55.00, ISBN 978-1-58826-636-1.

Ian Taylor’s aim in writing China’s New Role in Africa is to present a “balanced appraisal of China’s engagement in Africa” (p. 3). This book is clearly for scholars. It is an academic inquiry that reflects not only Taylor’s recent fieldwork, but also his fifteen years of research into Africa-China relations. What does it add to the growing collection of books on China-Africa relations?

The Book

The book consists of seven chapters, five of which treat specific issues that have emerged in the literature about China’s increasing influence on the African continent. Chapter 1, “China’s Africa Policy in Context,” lays the foundation for the rest of the book by naming the core research problem and highlighting its complexity. [End Page 382] The dilemma, according to the author, is that there are two incompatible views of the Chinese role in Africa. China claims that its engagement “has always been based on mutual benefits and win-win results.” Critics say that the pattern of China-Africa interaction, especially its trade relations, is neocolonial. This first chapter also interrogates the concepts of China and Africa, arguing that both are considerably more complex and diverse than many observers realize or are willing to admit. China, according to Taylor, is not a unitary actor relentlessly pushing a single agenda, but a state in which “bureaucratic interests, domestic politics, corruption, and other pathologies of China’s capitalist development,” together with the increasing diversity in Beijing’s foreign-policy procedures, mean that the state cannot fully control and direct its international economic relations (p. 8). The African reality is no less complex. The first two dimensions of this complexity are well recognized. Africa’s fifty-odd separate states lack a central government that would provide a coherent structure for engagement with China, and African states differ from one another on a range of variables. Taylor’s third contextual point is less obvious, but no less important for understanding Africa’s relations, not only with China, but also with other countries. He argues that in much of Africa the state is intrinsically unstable, with power maintained through patrimony and personal rule. In his view, “corruption, not hegemonic rule, is the cement that keeps the system together” (p. 11). This reality, he argues, is often not well understood by external actors, but it clearly affects the nature of their dealings with African countries. Furthermore, Beijing has been accused of seeking to exploit the personalization and informalization that pervade the politics of many African states.

The remainder of the first chapter considers China’s African policies, including the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC), Sino-African economic integration, China’s aid, the persistent question of whether China can serve as a model for Africa, and a brief treatment of the Taiwan factor.

Subsequent chapters take up a range of issues: oil diplomacy, the impact of cheap Chinese goods, human rights, the arms trade, and peacekeeping. The analysis is detailed and well documented, almost perfectly. Country case studies are used well to illustrate specific issues and to bring home the variations among African countries. Concluding sections seek to balance competing views, in many cases referring to the point made in the first chapter, namely that there are many Chinas and many Africas. Notably absent is any systematic treatment of the aid relationship.

In the concluding chapter, Taylor offers useful summaries of major issues discussed in the book and draws conclusions that tap once again into the major themes of the book. With regard to oil, for example, he argues that whether African elites will use oil receipts for development or squander them is ultimately up to them, not to China or any other buyer of the oil. He makes a similar argument about the cheap goods that China sends to Africa, but moderates it by acknowledging [End Page 383] that Chinese manufacturers have been guilty of “widespread intellectual theft of African clothing designs” and also of...