by Cobus van Staden, Chris Alden and Yu-Shan Wu
While Africa’s partnership with China has undeniably led to a jump in trade and investment, especially over the past two decades, many on the continent remain concerned about the relationship’s lack of equality. This issue is particularly striking in the midst of the rising prominence of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and questions around Africa’s role in it. Calls for bolstering African decision-making power in its interactions with China are very common in the China-Africa space. This article argues that for Africa to increase its agency—that is, its ability to make independent decisions and to increase its bargaining power—the continent first needs to unpack the nature of African decision-making in the China-Africa relationship. What does agency mean in the China-Africa relationship and how can Africa improve its bargaining position in relation to China? This article explores these questions by thinking through how African agency has been conceptualised in the past and comparing those ideas of agency a real-world case study: Africa’s relationship with the BRI.
Cobus van Staden is a senior researcher focusing on Africa-China relations at the South African Institute of International Affairs (SAIIA), and a visiting lecturer at the University of the Witwatersrand. He is the research director of the China-Africa Project and the co-host of its regular China in Africa Podcast.
Chris Alden teaches International Relations at the LSE and is an incoming director of LSE IDEAS. He is a senior research associate with the South African Institute of International Affairs (SAIIA) and research associate at the Department of Political Sciences, University of Pretoria.
Yu-Shan Wu is a research associate at the Africa–China Reporting Project (ACRP), Department of Journalism, University of Witwatersrand. She previously undertook research on foreign policy issues at the South African Institute of International Affairs (SAIIA), 2010-17. Her PhD (International Relations) is from the Department of Political Sciences, University of Pretoria.