Over the past decade, Africa has become a focal point of interest for numerous countries, especially due to its rich natural resources and commercial potential. Among these, Russia and China have stood out for their growing presence on the continent, differing in nature and intentions. The relationships of these two countries with Africa are characterized more by rivalry than partnership, due to the specific objectives they pursue: on one hand, China aims to benefit from the African market by promoting stability and interregional connectivity through long-term investments; on the other hand, Russia has exploited the continent’s instability to profit from arms sales. Therefore, even though there have been signs of cooperation between Russia and China in Africa, they remain rivals due to their inherently antithetical objectives.
This article briefly explores the history of China and Russia in Africa since decolonization, analyzing the nature and intentions of their presence on the continent and the perceptions of African countries, concluding by explaining why China and Russia are indeed rivals and what the relevant political implications might be for Africa and the West.
The histories of China and Russia in Africa are significantly different. China began interacting with African states during the Cold War, but its presence intensified from 2000 with the first Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC). In nineteen years, trade between China and Africa increased from 10 billion to 192 billion dollars in 2019. The main project linking the two is the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) launched in 2013 by Xi Jinping, which aims to promote connectivity in the Eurasian region through a new Silk Road, based on the “five principles of peaceful coexistence”. Over the last ten years, this has translated into numerous large infrastructure projects, investments in the digital sector, elite awareness programs, and collective security initiatives. However, these investments have often entailed a high level of indebtedness for African countries, potentially burdensome for their economic development and stability.
The general perception of African countries towards China is positive, as shown by the 2019-2021 Afrobarometer survey. However, concerns about Beijing’s influence remain, with fears of a new form of colonialism.
Conversely, Russia’s ties with Africa have developed differently. During decolonization, the Soviet Union saw an opportunity to export its ideology and emerge as a superpower by supporting liberation movements. However, after Stalin’s death in 1953, Russian influence declined until Putin’s rise in 2000. The first Russia-Africa summit in Sochi in 2019 marked a new strategy for Putin towards the continent, especially to avoid isolation following post-annexation sanctions of Crimea in 2014.
Russia has shallower economic ties with Africa compared to China, focusing its efforts on supplying military material to fragile states in exchange for resource extraction. Russia is the main arms supplier in Africa and uses private military companies, like the Wagner Group, to provide security assistance and promote covert operations, often negatively affecting its image due to alleged human rights violations.
Following the invasion of Ukraine in 2022, Putin’s interest in Africa increased, seeking to exploit the continent to achieve his goal of a multipolar world order. This includes not only targeting Africa’s energy and mineral resources but also the continent’s potential as a voting bloc in international matters, as demonstrated at the United Nations General Assembly in 2022, where many African states abstained from condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Africa’s perceptions of Russia are more difficult to assess due to the country’s recent renewed interest in the continent. According to the 2019-2021 Afrobarometer, African opinions towards Russia appear uncertain or indifferent. Favorable perceptions might be due to Russia’s declared values of multilateralism, anti-imperialism, and non-interference, which are well-received by African countries seeking diversification in foreign policy ties.
The rivalry between China and Russia in Africa becomes evident when considering that the nature of their presence on the continent is very different. Russia focuses on instability for short-term gain, while China aims to maintain the status quo to facilitate trade and the development of new Silk Roads.
Both countries view Africa as insurance for the future, an alternative to the West, competing mainly for its natural resources. Although economically Russia lags behind other major international partners of Africa, such as the European Union, China, and the United States, it remains a competitor of China. This rivalry manifests not only in commercial agreements but also in broader geopolitical influence.
For the West, the presence in Africa can be risky, as it could serve as a ground for navigating sanctions and influencing a large international bloc. However, the United States and the European Union remain important trading partners of both China and Russia, making it difficult for these two countries to completely ignore Western markets.
African countries should be concerned about extralegal tools like private military companies and the obstacle to long-term stability and progress due to Russia’s focus on strategic objectives. However, the interest of Russia and China in the continent could also prove advantageous, as it might allow African countries to benefit from multiple partnerships simultaneously.
In conclusion, while China needs to be aware of the increased security threats to its projects and citizens, Russia must be able to counter the negative effects of the actions of the Wagner Group, or it risks being surpassed by China in terms of soft power, as currently indicated by the perceptions of African citizens.