As the first-ever Russia-Africa summit made headlines around the world in the past few weeks, the comparison between the Russian and the Chinese approach to Africa was recurrent. It originated in the fact that both China and Russia are not Western countries, both have seemingly ‘returned’ to Africa in the 21st century for economic and political reasons, both advocate a non-interference approach in the internal affairs of other countries and both are perceived as great powers in international relations. This makes them potentially able to shake the status quo and arouses paranoia, especially in the West, about their intentions and the consequences of their actions for Africa and other external actors. However, while there are similarities in China and Russia’s engagements with Africa, many more are the differences.
Timing: Twenty years behind
China set up its first Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) in 2000 – when it had not yet joined the World Trade Organization (WTO) – with the aim of institutionalizing an engagement that was starting to gain momentum. While relations between China and Africa had been ongoing since the 1960s, it was only in the 1990s that the pace and magnitude changed – as China opened up (economically and politically) to the outside world and Africa became an important locus for the extraction of natural resources and an important market for Chinese companies.
On the other hand, Russia’s first Africa Summit comes about 20 years later. Later compared to China but later also compared to several other external actors that had enhanced relations with Africa in the past 20-30 years, acknowledging its increasingly important role in international affairs. Comparing the significance and impact of China’s first FOCAC and Russia’s first summit is thus complicated, first and foremost because they involved two quite different ‘Africas’. The former was tightly connected with and often dependent on Western aid and support and frequently considered passive and needy, with few development models to draw upon except for Western ones. The latter is much more internationalised and able to leverage the opportunities linked with each and every international partner.
In a way, then, if China’s arrival in the 2000s represented an alternative to the West, Russia’s arrival in today’s Africa is less sensational or exclusive. While the summit was important for Russia’s power projection, it was just one more summit for African countries.
The waning appeal of non-interference
In the political realm, China and Russia do share similarities. First above all is the willingness to challenge the West for its legacy of colonialism and imperialism, its democracy-promotion approach, and its often-paternalistic attitude towards Africa. They do so by allegedly providing an alternative based on mutual respect and win-win collaboration, with the aim of acknowledging African states’ sovereignty through non-interference in internal affairs – deemed a particularly appealing feature for African governments.
However, assuming that all 54 African states favour the lack of conditions, such as good governance standards, means underestimating the democratization efforts of many African countries in the past 20 years or so. Moreover, the engagement with China taught that the lack of conditions is not always positively received.
On the one hand, in many African states, decision-making processes are not limited to the executive but are mediated by bureaucracies, trade unions, industry associations that renegotiate conditions and implement them according to procedural standards. On the other, eventually, conditions exist, making non-interference a seemingly utopian approach. Increased commercial interests and investments led China to become more aware of political, economic and security dynamics in the countries where it operates, stepping up its risk mediation efforts and departing significantly from the core principles and practices that guided interaction in the early stages.
Part of this was the creation, in the late 2000s, of elaborate soft power machinery made up of media presence, education and health assistance, cultural exchanges and so forth, needed to placate Africans’ negative sentiments and perceptions towards China – often seen as a threat to local political economies. Despite Russia’s efforts to leverage the Soviet legacy to appeal to Africans, it currently looks like it has neither the intention nor the capacity to invest in Africa comprehensively for the long term.
China and Russia are economically incomparable
While Russia has attempted to portray itself as a major power – aiming to be compared to the likes of China – in reality, in economic terms the two countries are extremely hard to compare for either their economic power or the magnitude of their foothold in Africa. According to the World Bank, China’s GDP (PPP) was more than six times that of Russia in 2018 ($25.3 trillion vis-à-vis $4 trillion), while GDP grew at an average 8% versus 1.3% between 2008-2018.
According to UNCTAD, China is Africa’s second-largest trading partner ($204bn in 2018) after the EU ($357bn), and a top investor; while Russia’s trade with the continent only amounts to $20bn (of which 85% are exported to Africa, with arms taking over 31% of the share). According to the think tank SIPRI, in 2014–18 Russia accounted for 49% of total arms imports to North Africa, followed by the USA (15%) and China (10%). In sub-Saharan Africa, instead, Russia and China were the two largest exporters, with Russia providing 28% of arms and China 24%, followed by Ukraine (8.3%) and the USA (7.1%).
Moscow’s economic pragmatism and focus on lucrative niche markets (i.e. arms, minerals, fossil fuels) allowed it to spend limited resources on specific goals, vis-à-vis China whose deep financial pockets and comprehensive approach led to a widespread presence (in infrastructure, agriculture, the media and so forth) and hence more associated with risks and failures. Nonetheless, and despite the signing of, allegedly, $12.5 billion in deals at the Sochi Summit, Russia’s limited economic power makes the country certainly less appealing for African governments than China, especially at a time when support and delivery of economic development is a must for African leaders to maintain legitimacy. It will remain to be seen if the deals promised in Sochi will pan out.
Contradicting non-interference through security involvement
Though both China and Russia advocate non-interference in the internal affairs of other countries, they also both engage in security in Africa. The logics and approaches, however, differ.
For China, the involvement in this sector evolved out of the need to protect China’s own commercial routes, investments, citizens, representing a departure from China’s foreign policy pillar of non-interference. Effectively it took China more than a decade to openly disclose its security intentions in Africa, which shifted from the provision of non-combatant peace-keepers for the United Nations in 2003 to combat-ready roles by 2013, and again the opening of the first permanent military base overseas in Djibouti in 2017 and the launch of the first China-Africa Defense and Security Forum in 2018.
Russia has instead been pro-actively involved in providing bilateral military assistance to African governments since the onset, tailoring cooperation to specific countries and needs while drawing on its strength as arms producer and exporter to ensure access to markets and mineral extraction rights.
While China has mostly used the UN system to engage in security operations, Russia has more often taken the bilateral route, although it is increasingly seeking agreements with the African Union (AU) and regional organizations, recognizing their role in conflict resolution in Africa. Though Russia does not shy away from its military involvement – see the show of Kalashnikovs at the Sochi summit – it is also interested in making sure the government is minimally exposed so as to avoid international and domestic scrutiny. Hence the use of private contractors like the Wagner group, a non-state entity yet strictly linked to the Kremlin.
Not focusing on African dynamics will prove a mistake
It is a habit to talk of external actors’ influence in Africa and the consequences for the continent of such foreign presences, almost forgetting Africans’ role in shaping such relations. Russia is seemingly repeating the same mistake that China made: mostly discounting African domestic politics, focusing on the incumbents while refusing to engage with the broader political spectrum. Not taking into account the diversity of actors, the complexity of negotiations, the fact that African people increasingly express the will to hold leaders to account, means that Russia’s strategies may prove ineffective in the long term.
Irrespective of how niche Russia’s involvement in Africa is and although the Sochi Summit was yet another summit for African heads of state, the fact that Russia plays on different lanes compared to China – or other major powers – It is still sufficient to welcome it into the ongoing African mega-diversification drive. This has been equipping Africans with better negotiation skills, which will be eventually used not to choose one partner over the other but to leverage multiple partnerships simultaneously.