Book Review: The Political Economy of China-US relations: Digital Futures and African Agency, by Mzukisi Qobo

This book is a timely and important read which shines the spotlight on many contemporary challenges affecting Africa’s political economy. It is an informed and thorough account of the past, present, and future issues informing Africa’s geostrategic policy dilemmas. The main value of the analysis is the holistic approach it provides, which offers an important framework from which to assess global power competition – from an African perspective.

The author extensively covers the genesis of current global power dynamics and explains why the African continent remains confined to the periphery of world affairs. In addition to providing a comprehensive account of the drivers that shaped the Westphalian liberal world order following World War 2, the author uses the prism of race to offer a unique and much-needed perspective on why existing power imbalances persist.

The “racialised global hierarchy of power” is often the elephant in the room in international relations discourse. Therefore, having a credible African author from the Global South offering some much-needed insight into the matter is a very welcome change. Qobo looks at the exclusionary nature of global institutional architecture developed in this period and illustrates how it was not fit for purpose due to the asymmetric balance of power that deprived developing countries of any meaningful agenda setting.

In this context, he does not lament the breakdown of the global liberal order (currently underway), arguing it was not fit for purpose to begin with. Instead, he sees the current crossroads as an opportunity for African states to shift the “coordinates of global power in their favour”.

In explaining the limitations in US foreign policy towards Africa, Qobo notes that various American governments were “afflicted with the demon of racism at home, while on the other it pursued universalist ideals that were at odds with its domestic socio-political reality.”

The author compellingly makes this case, clearly articulating how incongruence between US external aspirations and domestic politics undermined their moral legitimacy as a credible global hegemon. This context is important in understanding the US’s historical engagement across Africa, which was shaped through what Qobo describes as a bifurcated world view, shaped initially by sympathy and strategic alliances with European colonial powers and later through the anti-communism doctrine that guided its Cold War foreign policy.

The author also explores the relationship between African states and China, and provides a textured approach to the discussion, showing both positive and negative dimensions of Chinese engagement. The analysis around the emerging Beijing consensus and its resonance with African states, juxtaposed against the failings of the erstwhile Washington consensus, is an important part of current global dynamics – where the battles for African hearts and minds are accelerating and Africa is emerging as a theatre for competition.

The author notes that in much of western discourse around Sino-Africa relations, China’s role in Africa is vilified. He observes that it is this suspicion and fear of China’s activities on the continent that is the parochial lens through which much of US foreign policy has been framed. For example, Qobo observes that by using the “scarecrow of debt-trap to paint China in a bad light and to discourage Africans from working with China, America is also projecting its low esteem of African countries as unable to reason for themselves, and make judgments between what is good and bad for them. America is burdening itself with safeguarding Africans from self-harm, precisely because it does not judge them as equally capable of making diplomatic and commercial judgments.”

The contrast in styles of engagement – from paternalistic to a more partnership-oriented one is explored in detail in the discussion on the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) and Belt and Road Initiative, China’s flagship projects in Africa. This provides colour around Chinese economic and diplomatic engagement and how African states have responded to this courtship. The relationship between China and African states has often been criticised for being lopsided in favour of China, and this is something the author reiterates, emphasising the need for African states to reorient the equation more favourably towards higher-value African exports.

Importantly, the author correctly notes that there is “no free lunch” with China, and that conditionalities apply, although these are perhaps less explicit than western ones. Although it is touched on, a more expansive discussion on the controversial issues of predatory lending and debt-trap diplomacy would have enhanced this chapter.

In the context of a potentially more inward-focused China in a post-Covid world, the continued evolution of this relationship is going to be a critical area to watch. As Qobo observes, “the key consideration for African countries is how they use this relationship to diversify their production base, improve the profile of their exports, and leverage Chinese technologies through requirements for joint ventures and technology partnerships to advance Africa’s digital transformation.”

With historical factors in mind, Qobo provides a sound explanation of why Africa’s development pathway cannot be linear, nor can it mirror the same processes that were experienced in other regions of the world. The context in Africa is unique and traditional models do not account for a multitude of factors, including premature deindustrialisation, green growth, or rapid technological shifts. Qobo argues that for African policymakers “the main preoccupation should be to improve its relative position in the global system and to advance its economic development along with structural diversification and the digital revolution.”

The author’s views on this matter echo my own. I have long argued that leaders across the continent must adopt the concept of “smart cuts” to hack the ladder to economic prosperity – focusing on innovation, industrialisation, and integration to achieve exponential results. Importantly, Qobo acknowledges the importance and growing relevance of the African Continental Free Trade Area agreement in catalysing any structural transformation, while simultaneously acknowledging that there will be “variable geometry” in how countries achieve this. Through the examination of traditional and scholarly models of growth, and their limitations, Qobo can illustrate how and why Africa needs to adopt an entirely new pathway that is rooted in digital transformation.

This segues neatly into the next part of the book, which explores the catalytic effect that digital technology can have in achieving “leapfrogging” in Africa. The author highlights the remarkable success of several African innovations, which have solved societal problems, and illustrates how necessity drives innovation on the continent. Despite the enormous potential and opportunities, there are also significant limitations in the continent’s infrastructure – hard and soft – which constrain this growth. Moreover, the continent’s regulatory landscape will need to be significantly upgraded to unlock investment, create jobs, and achieve meaningful digital transformation.

This converges with the other core theme of the book – African agency in the context of power competition. As the author notes, “The US-China rivalry is essentially a battle for survival in a world that is increasingly taking an anarchic turn; it is about trade, knowledge, and technological supremacy, as well as building spheres of influence along these domains. There are at least two ways to view this development: the first is that African countries could take advantage of this emerging divide and exploit it for its benefit; alternatively, the African continent could align with one of these powers.”

Unlike during the Cold War, where Africa became a battleground for proxy wars and ideological battles, and consequently exploitation, the current context offers an opportunity to avoid past mistakes by using global competition favourably for the continent’s development.

Indeed, Qobo argues that African policymakers now need to pursue diplomatic policies, which are driven by pragmatism and strategic and commercial value, rather than picking sides. He makes the case that as tensions between the US and China continue to simmer across multiple dimensions, including trade and technology, this will present opportunities for African nations to exploit the fault lines. This concept of African agency is explored indepth in chapter nine, where he details how the contest around 5G technology offers an opportunity for countries on the continent to exercise leverage and commercial diplomacy based on self-interest, while maintaining their sovereignty – both digital and national. These examples are illustrative of the continent’s growing and unique importance in the digital domain as well as global power dynamics.

On a positive note, I thoroughly enjoyed the concluding thoughts section of each chapter, which was a very neat way of capturing the key ideas discussed. It helped to connect the dots for a lay reader, who may not be able to fully absorb the dense and complex technical information outlined in the construction of the arguments. To this end, the arguments are sophisticated and generally well-constructed and the writing style fluent, although sometimes it strays into overly academic territory.

One criticism is that the attention given to the forward-looking dimensions of Africa’s power relations is not given as much prominence as the historical ones. Although it is important to contextualise how and why past dynamics inform current realities, the first part of the book is perhaps a little too detailed and deviates from the core ideas around digital futures and African agency as presented in the title. As a reader, I found myself more interested in the “so what” for Africa, which is tackled much later in the analysis. In keeping with this theme, at times it also felt as though the author was attempting to cover too much ground and that may have been better served using a different structure.

Overall, however, I found this to be an interesting and useful piece of scholarly literature. As a political economist and lecturer, this book would be very useful material for my students, and I would not hesitate to use this as material for future courses. It provides robust content and a useful reference point for anyone looking to understand Africa in the emerging global order.

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RONAK GOPALDAS is a director at Signal Risk, an exclusively African risk advisory firm. He was previously the head of country risk at Rand Merchant Bank (RMB) for a number of years, where he managed a team who provided the firm with in-depth analysis of economic, political, security and operational dynamics across sub-Saharan Africa. He holds a BCom degree in philosophy, politics and economics (PPE) and a BCom (Hons) from the University of Cape Town (UCT). He also has an MSc in finance (economic policy) through the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London.[