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Power or Influence? Making sense of China’s evolving party-to-party diplomacy in Africa

by Lina Benabdallah


Power and influence are concepts that have been studied by International Relations and foreign policy scholars for decades. Special attention has recently been focused on examining China’s rise, Chinese government’s power projections and tools of influence in Africa and elsewhere in the Global South. In much of this scholarship, power is viewed as a set of (material) resources, and influence is taken to be the tools that help convert an actor’s resources into outcomes. If examining China-Africa relations focuses exclusively on infrastructure construction projects, mining activities, and other material investments, it would be feasible to analyze power as a (material) possession or as a capability that can be converted into influence. However, China-Africa relations go beyond material investments and include evolving initiatives that provide training workshops and seminars for thousands of senior party cadres and political elites from across the continent. By focusing on these training programs, it becomes evident that mainstream frameworks about power and influence are not satisfactory. This article utilizes the case of China-Africa party-party cadre trainings to illustrate a framework that treats power and influence not as if they exist in a linear relationship where power accumulation occurs first and then it translates into influence, but as mutually reinforcing processes. I argue that power and influence both grow and expand through party-to-party exchanges mainly because of three main interrelated mechanisms; social capital and network expansion, norm diffusion, and expertise sharing.

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Lina Benabdallah is Assistant Professor at Wake Forest University. She is the author of Shaping the Future of Power: Knowledge Production and Network-Building in China-Africa Relations (University of Michigan Press, 2020). Her research has appeared in The Journal of International Relations and DevelopmentThird World QuarterlyAfrican Studies QuarterlyProject on Middle East Political Science, as well as in public facing outlets such as the Washington Post’s Monkey Cage and Foreign Policy.