你要去哪里 | Nǐ yào qù nǎlǐ | Where are you going? This is one of the few phrases I can recall from my middle school Mandarin classes. I studied the beautifully complex language for two years, yet I can only remember a few basic phrases. What I do remember, arguably more importantly, were the lessons I learned about Chinese culture during these classes. Through learning Mandarin, I developed an acute appreciation for traditional calligraphy and Chinese cuisine, as well as social protocol and history. China’s increasing presence on the world stage cannot be ignored, and has both the global north and global south questioning, “Nǐ yào qù nǎlǐ?”
I love learning about socioeconomic phenomena, and the course I enrolled in as part of LSE-UCT Summer School allowed me to do just that. IR201 “Africa and Global Transformation: The rise of emerging power and a new international order” had attracted a unique and enthusiastic group of thirteen students from all over the world, each bringing a different perspective to the seminar-style lectures and tutorials. The wealth of experiences within the classroom was nothing short of phenomenal, with students hailing from Brazil, Zimbabwe, the Netherlands, Ireland, Romania, Namibia, the UK, Austria, Korea, the USA, South Africa, and Canada (yours truly!)
The course content was attention-grabbing, and we began our studies with an in-depth look at emerging powers in Africa. Professor Chris Alden, a world-renowned scholar in the field of International Relations and leading expert on the role of emerging powers in Africa, introduced us to the dynamic and complex Sino-Africa relationship. We discussed whether China is an economic competitor, development partner or potential hegemon in Africa, with specific reference to China’s foreign policy. We also questioned whether China’s non-interference policy helps or hinders Africa. With these questions in mind, we turned our attention to issues such as peace and security, inequality, and local frictions.
Our course readings challenged us to consider China’s role in Africa from myriad perspectives. Zhang Chun grounded the debate with historical context, illustrating how the China-Africa relationship was formally established through diplomatic ties with Egypt in 1956 (2013), and while Chun acknowledged both share political, economic, and cultural dimensions, the relationship between China and Africa remains strikingly asymmetrical. Also acknowledging such asymmetry, Alden and Jiang’s “Brave New World: Debt Industrialisation and Security in China-Africa Relations” challenged readers to look at China’s non-interference policy as well as China’s role as creditor within Africa (2016).
Our main assignment allowed us to dig deeper into the topics covered in week one, with three questions to choose from. I originally chose to answer a question that explored China’s contributions to Africa’s development, but once I sunk my teeth into the research, I shifted focus and wrote a mock policy brief that would (hypothetically) provide advice to an African government concerning the establishment of a symmetrical relationship with a selected BRICS country. Given my interest in the Maritime Silk Road (MSR), I chose to focus on Kenya, with its 230,000 square kilometres of exclusive economic zone (EEZ) along the Indian Ocean.
I learned that, through financial commitments to Kenya’s maritime infrastructure, China may be seen as a development partner to Kenya, although the symmetry of this relationship is often called into question. In my mock policy brief, I wrote how a new policy framework should be adopted as to better facilitate the construction and management of deep-sea port infrastructure. I advised that, by referring to external stakeholders such as the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) and the International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD), Kenya will be able to identify key performance indicators (KPIs) that prioritise its commitment to “develop policies for harnessing the potential of the Blue Economy” (Kenya Ministry of Foreign Policy 2019).
As Week One concluded, my classmates and I were left wondering, where is China going with its interest and investment in Africa? Nǐ yào qù nǎlǐ ?