July 25, 2024

Africa’s tilt towards Russia & China

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By: Sourishree Ghosh, Research Analyst, GSDN

Africa, Russia & China: source Internet

A new scramble for Africa is looming over the horizon. Africa remains a crucial source of critical minerals, gold, diamonds, Uranium and oil including critical inputs for alternative energies and advanced technologies.  The African Region is a vital region for global security. This region has been one of the regions for leveraging world power by the global powers. Russia’s growing footprint in the African continent has reflected upon its ambitions in the Global South. The US has been rapidly losing its soft power edge in Africa, while on the other hand, the popularity of Russia and China is growing.  Some call it a cold war type of competition in the continent. Russia has become the preferred security partner for a number of African nations while China’s investments have been largely focused on the minerals key to the global energy transition. In the latest developments, the US troops will be exiting Niger by September 15, 2024 wherein the Pentagon had previously enjoyed a long-standing security partnership. This also portrays a stark backlash against the Western military presence in the Sahel region.  

The US-South Africa ties have also been coming under tensions after the latter brought Israel to the ICJ over its Gaza war. The ongoing Israel-Palestine conflict and South Africa’s stance over the issue also demonstrates its changing relations with the West. Russia has gone in to fill in the advanced air defence systems. Washington’s leverage in the African continent has declined considerably. The US policy in Africa has been one of counterterrorism solely which has also overlooked the stability and development factors in its diplomatic engagement with Africa. In the last two decades, China has become the largest trading partner of all African nations and has replaced the US. The decline of US influence in the African continent has been one of the major reasons for the rise of China and Russia. In this article, we will explore the factors that are affecting Africa’s stance towards Russia and China and the limits of their relations in the long term.

Explaining Africa’s Tilt Towards China

Africa is crucial for China to secure its inputs for its manufacturing sector such as copper, cobalt, oil resources, crude oil and access to the African markets. The Chinese investments are mainly for greater political and security returns from the continent. Chinese sense of urgency of development in the African continent is of much greater importance than that of the western nations as China’s largest source of crude imports is Africa (mainly Republic of Congo and South Sudan) after West Asia. China’s BRI in Africa is towards a realisation of its dream of a Sino-centric world order. Africa has the largest number of countries that have friendly relations with China and this is a potential asset for China for its support in international institutions. Moreover, Africa is also described by the Chinese strategists as a possible and potential “exterior line” which China can use to deter the United States’ Indo-Pacific strategy. So, Beijing’s investments in the African ports would come handy for naval deployments in the event of a war with the US.

China has its own PMCs for securing access to the critical minerals.  There is a common ideological linkage between the CCP and the rulers of states like Ethiopia. China has also expanded its defence attaches in Africa and the defence sales which experienced 55% growth between 2012 and 2017. The China-Angola relations have been strengthened during the country’s 30-year-old civil war. During this crucial period, the West was distracted by its “war on terror” in Afghanistan and Iraq. China is Africa’s largest trading partner and biggest source of foreign direct investment. Their ties date back to history when the African nations gave recognition to the PRC over Taiwan. China since the mid-1990s has officially heralded the policy of non-interference in the African governmental affairs and provision of loans with no strings attached. It has also been argued that many African nations have seen China’s no-strings attached approach more attractive than loans from US based financial institutions such as the IMF and World Bank.

China’s BRI has been influencing African domestic affairs and foreign policy making as well. Some 150 countries among whom many of them are in Africa have signed on to China’s Belt and Road Initiative. For example, in Kenya, the Standard Gauge Railway has been hailed as one of the biggest and most successful infrastructure projects till date. Kenya had also borrowed some $5 billion from China for building railways for connecting the port city of Mombasa to Nairobi and Nairobi to Naivasha. These are a part of Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s signature foreign policy. These include key telecommunication projects, global infrastructure and trade for connectivity from Kenya to Uganda, Rwanda and South Sudan. However, these projects are also opening up the scope of corruption and massive debt. The railway project cuts through the Nairobi National Park which has raised environmental and sustainability concerns. Ethiopia and Zambia have green flagged massive Chinese built infrastructure.    

China’s commercial diplomacy is unmatched as Beijing forges for expansion of trade and diversification of investment in various sectors, signing of investment deals on fire quest official visits to the resource rich regions of the country (like Angola), unparalleled ability to provide low-cost financing and source of cheap labour for the infrastructure projects. These diplomatic and commercial endeavours of China have made Africa tilt towards China in its foreign policy. China’s security interests lay in the region due to the killing of the Chinese peacekeepers in Mali and Sudan. China’s stance has been challenged in Sudan, a major oil exporter to China, where the ongoing conflict has spurred changes in the Chinese policy. Beijing has also increased its commitment to the UN and African Union peace missions and establishment of its first overseas military outpost in Djibouti. China has also pledged $100 million of military aid to the African Union as it supports the country’s capability initiatives in defence and counterterrorism, for example, China has supported counter piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden. These also shows that the

Thus, trade, investments and loans of China have tilted the African nations towards China. These Chinese activities for bolstering economic growth of Africa are not just mere goodwill investments and might potentially be a stockpiling of international support for contentious political issues in the UN. This has been researched and proven by experts from Aid Data, research lab at College of William and Mary, who reported a link between Chinese assistance and the alignment of the recipient countries with Beijing’s voting in the UN and garnering active support for its One China Principle.  An instance is when the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, published a long-awaited report which has condemned China’s repressive policies in the Xinjiang province against the Uighur minority. Muslim countries in the African continent remained silent on the issue and this also led to the failure of the adoption of the resolution at the UN. These also reflect upon China’s soft power and economic diplomacy in the Global South. This can be seen as a conflict between the choice to be on the side of the authoritarian governments on the human rights issues at multilateral forums.  However, such a support is also quasi-systematic as in another case, 25 African nations voted against a motion which condemned China’s national security law in June 2020. The bilateral trade between China and Africa reached $187 billion in 2020 despite China’s zero-Covid policy. Thes tight economic ties with China has led to dependence on China. China is today Africa’s biggest bilateral creditor, with countries such as Kenya owing China around 72% of its bilateral trade. The African countries have refused to take sides in the Russia-Ukraine war as China has implicitly stated that it will scale back its overseas investment drive on default of the debt issued by Chinese banks. It also must be noted that the African nations are refraining from any kind of military and security alliance.  China has also adopted a long term and comprehensive strategy including investments in the civilian and government infrastructure with several African nations including Ethiopia, Zambia and Angola.

Explaining Africa’s Tilt Towards Russia

Africa is crucial for Russia on account of the latest discoveries of natural resources from the region of Senegal to Mozambique for Europe’s supply chain issues.  Russia has been relying on memory diplomacy to tap into the anti-colonial sentiments of the African nations and also employing the disinformation campaign for discrediting the pro-western forces to present itself as a better partner than the West. The tilt of the African nations towards Russia dates back to history when the Soviet policy aligned with the sympathetic socialist countries across Africa, examples include close relationship of Moscow with South Africa’s anti-apartheid African National Congress and sending aid in the civil wars in Angola and Congo. In Moscow’s formal diplomatic efforts, Moscow has also signed military cooperation agreements with around nineteen countries since 2014 which signifies cooperation on sensitive issues such as defence cooperation. The Russia-Ukraine conflict has also given a boost to Russia’s attempts at band wagoning Africa. It has extended diplomatic support to Ethiopia and Uganda, both countries who face criticism over human rights issues. Russia has backed the military regimes in Mali and Burkina Faso. It has also forged closer ties with Egypt for influencing the Libyan conflict to secure its access to the North African and Mediterranean oil reserves. One of the most notable bonding of Russia and Africa is the BRICS group, and BRICS has played a crucial role in building diplomatic institutions alternative to the western led institutions. Kremlin has also launched the Russia-Africa Summit in 2019, which has been a yearly event since then. The Russo-African Summit in Sochi, Russia in October 2019 reflects the fact that Russia has made significant inroads in the African continent. The Summit ended successfully with the signing of the 21 military agreements. In March 2022, only 28 African states condemned Russia’s actions in Ukraine, which meant that almost half of the continent avoided making any stand against Russia directly. In the domain of security, The Russian economies have been struggling economically due to the slow post covid recovery and the global ripple effect of the Russia-Ukraine conflict. For example, Russian fossil fuel exports to Africa in 2023 had skyrocketed to fourteen times as compared to the pre-war period.

Russian paramilitaries and mercenaries are operating in Mali, Congo, the Central African Republic and other states. Russia has also heavily expanded its military footprint in Africa through its Afrika Korps. This has also enhanced Russia’s hard power and influence in the region. The African nations also want greater agency in the management of their foreign affairs as various African nations have rebuffed the Western pressure of picking sides in the conflict. This western pressure has been counterproductive which has paradoxically enough furthered their anti-western sentiments. Moreover, Russia has not joined the western sanctions regime against Russia in the light of the Russia-Ukraine war. This also explains the successful international support Russia has garnered from Africa.

In the aftermath of 9/11 attacks, the United States had deployed troops and military aid to West Africa in order to deter the spread of Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups and the result today is the failure of the West’s policy to counter regional as well as international terrorism. The United States had withdrawn 1000 military personnel from Niger and shuttered a $110 million air base while the extremist insurgency continues to seep into the South of the continent. Some analysts point out that the revamped US approach should be a combination of well-financed initiatives weaving together security, governance and development rather than a permanent military presence. The French and the European troops in Barkahne, Tabuka and Sabre have been ousted by the new military rulers of Bamako and Ouagadougou.

Wagner had played a crucial role in the region for securing Russia’s access to the lucrative access to the mining assets. As Russia’s private military, Wagner’s actions first began in Sudan (2017) and rapidly expanded to Madagascar (2018) and Mozambique (2019). In the Libyan civil war, the Wagner group played a crucial role in securing Russia’s access to Libyan oil. However, the interests of these private armies do not always necessarily align with the Kremlin as the recent attempted coup in Russia was staged by this private military group.  Through the infamous group, Russia has also been indulging itself in the countries such as Mali and Burkina Faso wherein the western diplomacy had failed considerably due to the failures of the international and local actors to address the regional instability in the continent. The relationship between Paris and Bamako had declined considerably post the military coups in Mali in 2021 and 2022. France and the United States have alleged that the governments they have been working with have been perceived as corrupt and partly responsible for the insecurity. The Flintlock Counter-terrorism exercise is mostly focused on urban terrorism and rescue of hostages which are not really aligned with the reality of terrorism in the Sahel region. The Biden Administration in a bid for revival has offered the Global Fragility Act, a 10-year plan for deterring the spread of terrorism in the coastal west African nations. France had to withdraw its forces from Mali in 2022, after a decade of failed anti-terror and stabilisation efforts. The Biden administration had also suspended the countries’ free trading rights to the US. The issues of widespread human rights abuses in the region have also led to laws which prohibit the U.S military assistance to the countries of concern. Russia had taken advantage of the prevailing instability and security vacuum in the continent. For example, Russia brokered an exemption to the UNSC embargo on the supply of arms to the Central African Republic in 2017, this move had broken through France’s strong political and military influence for decades and presented Russia as a new security interlocutor.

Africa’s discontentment with the slow progress of UN reforms has been one of the major reasons for its tilt towards Russia and China. There has been increasingly an anti-western sentiment due to the West’s lacklustre Covid-19 vaccine distribution that had been a major setback for Africa’s public health system. The African Union has also called for the “complete exclusion of mercenaries from the African continent” and the lack of reform in the multilateral institutions have been the sore point of the Africa-US relations. Moscow is increasingly tapping into this anti-western sentiment for bolstering influence in the continent in the midst of the geopolitical competition between Russia and the West. This is happening also because of the African nations’ long-standing frustration over the lack of representation in the international multilateral bodies and institutions. Many analysts have pointed out that the Western nations should seek to build more equal partnership with Africa. Russia’s interest in the vast resources of the continent is important for Russia as some of these technologies at the centre include the push for a clean energy future. The ongoing Russia-Ukraine conflict has nevertheless created food security challenges for Africa. Russia’s ties with Africa are mainly focused on the weapons trade but the former is currently expanding its operational footprint which includes signing of new military bases such as the establishment of a naval port in Sudan. On a diplomatic front, Russia’s goal is that of a multipolar world order. At the United Nations, it has also lobbied the African allies for favourable vote on the Ukraine conflict. On the economic front based on the data from the Congressional Research Service, Russia is not as powerful as its counterparts namely China and the United States.


African leaders have presented a peace proposal plan for the Russia-Ukraine conflict which Putin has acknowledged that the plan could be a basis of peace. Africa had also sent a clear signal to Putin about the need for peace in the successful conclusion of the grain deal. The latest Russia-African Summit in 2023 has failed to deliver any concrete results. Firstly, out of the 49 African countries that sent delegations to St. Petersburg for the second Russia-Africa Summit in July, only 17 heads of state attended which is much lower than the number of leaders who attended the December 2022 US-Africa Summit. The West has claimed that the involvement of the Russian private military companies is driving the conflict, along with worsening human rights abuses and a growing militarization of the administration in Africa. There had been a recent allegation by the United States that Pretoria was supplying arms to Moscow has also been the cause of a diplomatic dilemma between US and Africa. Africa had also previously taken an initiative for a ten-point peace plan in the Russia-Ukraine conflict which has failed to make the cut diplomatically. We must also note that the attendance at the Russia-Africa Summit has also dropped significantly as compared to the previous one. Moreover, some analysts have also pointed out that the competition over Africa’s resources can also become a fault line between Beijing and Moscow. Africa’s support and neutrality over the Ukraine war has been fragmented in nature. The continent has been in a geopolitical divide.

In return for favourable Chinese deals, China has boosted the African oil and mining sector. Beijing’s complex relationship with the continent has also challenged its “non-interference” policy in the continent. Secondly, China’s debt trap diplomacy in the continent has come into view. Zambia was the first country to default on its Chinese debt during the pandemic. A recent Boston University study reported that the lending to Africa by China has dropped to its lowest level in two decades and Beijing is preferably moving towards smaller investments. Some of the African nations view the Chinese investment in a favourable light however some of the countries have criticised Beijing for ignoring the environmental standards which have violated local laws and indulged in various other forms of corruption. It also needs to be understood that many African nations attach low priority to environmental standards. The environment factor is being ranked the least important in the prevalent dangers in Africa. Thirdly, China’s peace brokering in the conflicts has its own limitations. Zambia has also experienced civil strife due to the influx of Chinese companies in the region. The Chinese non-interference principle is being tested given the shifting geopolitics in the region. Chinese investments in the region peaked around 2016 and since then the Chinese loans to the African governments declined significantly, falling from US$ 28.4 billion in 2016 to US$ 1.9 billion in 2020. This is because of changing priorities of China for its domestic reasons and due to the high defaults of the African nations to pay the debts back to China. The African nations have characterised the Chinese loans as a mutually beneficial cooperation between the developing countries and China’s policy of non-interference. China has also far surpassed the US as an economic player in the African continent.

Another limitation in the long run is that the US is reinventing and rethinking its Africa policy. The US has also been trying to regain its hold and influence over the continent as understood from its efforts such as the US strategy towards sub-Saharan Africa with focus on pandemic recovery and just energy transition, hosting of the US-Africa Summit pledging to providing the continent with US$ 55 billion in aid and investments in 2022-25. The security situation in Mali and Burkina Faso has been in the flux due to a deteriorating security situation and a looming humanitarian crisis. The instability in the continent is itself a great challenge for normal and stable ties for all the nations involved in the scramble. 

The Chinese approach in the African continent has its own limitations, for instance, during the Sudanese civil war, China had to deal with the representations of various groups that opposed the government for maintaining the Greater Nile Oil Pipeline, which is operated by the China National Petroleum Corporations. In the past, China has aggressively pursued its repayment of debts from Africa which has to some extent affected China as the champion of the developing nations. China’s conflict resolution stance in diplomacy in Africa remains unclear. Beijing did appoint a special envoy to the Horn of Africa however it has not been playing any significant role in the devastating civil war in the country despite its heavy investments in Ethiopia. The African Union has taken the diplomatic lead in this regard. African leaders are also aware that Africa has become aground for power rivalry and proxy wars in Africa. This has also made Africa view China as a positive development model. American businesses in Africa are slowing their engagement given the high risk and power infrastructure and this vacuum is being filled by the Chinese companies. With regard to China, there is a greater concern for transparency in its dealings as for example, in Kenya, the parliamentarians also pressed for public scrutiny of the US$ 5 billion loan agreement Kenya made with the EXIM bank of China for the Mombasa-Nairobi railway.

To conclude, major powers of the world are competing for influence and the great scramble for Africa is a reality in world affairs today. Besides Russia and China, the Gulf nations especially Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Qatar and Turkey have extensively invested in the ports, military bases, and agricultural sector besides their robust diplomatic ties with the continent.  For example, Qatar has the longest standing involvement in peacekeeping efforts in the Horn of Africa which has been playing the role of a peace broker between the Sudanese government and rebels in Darfur. In the war-torn conflicted area of Libya, the UAE along with Russia and Egypt supported the Khalifa Haftar forces. Moreover, the African Union has also been playing a significant role in the promotion of economic, political and social integration in the continent, despite facing institutional, political and financial challenges. Thus, the shifting sands of geopolitics in the African continent has made the African gamble a complicated and complex affair wherein many powers are involved. It can also be inferred that Africa has been finely balancing and treading its diplomacy and tight-rope walking in dealing with the external affairs while also dealing with its internal conflicting circumstances. Africa is indeed facing a geopolitical divide across the continent. To conclude, these factors would determine the future of African relations with China and Russia in Africa’s foreign policy making.


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