As Washington directed its energy on Russia, Beijing stepped in to fill the vacuum with large ınfrastructure projects and generous aid to nations.
As the United States aims to sanction and isolate Russia amid the Ukraine war, it has also turned its attention to Africa to uproot Moscow in the politically volatile continent. While Russia had previously established a foothold in the continent, Washington has tried to pressure states into not doing business with Moscow and ending their bilateral military ties.
Yet China’s financial influence in the continent, often seen as an attractive alternative to Washington’s paradoxical cocktail of indifference–dictating the states’ politics and military hard power– could once again accelerate and further fill the vacuum.
The Tigray conflict in Ethiopia is a tell-tale sign of the US’ faltering leverage in Africa. The US has often seen Ethiopia’s government of Abiy Ahmed as an important ally. Yet while sanctioning Addis Ababa over its alleged role in the Tigray conflict, Washington has failed to provide adequate diplomacy to end the conflict despite its leverage in the region.
After peace talks over the conflict in October, Russia and China blocked a UN Security Council statement to condemn Addis Ababa’s current operations in its Tigray province, which shows how Moscow and Beijing in particular have deepened their clout in the region amid Washington’s faltering influence.
In the most critical conflicts, in which the US could play a bigger role, American diplomacy has fallen short. Take Libya for example, where the US’ evident apathy had enabled Moscow to become a dominant actor in the East and even build ties with the West of the fractured country.
With alarm bells ringing within Western policy circles over the prospect of Russia and China challenging American influence in Africa, NATO’s chiefs have warned of Moscow and Beijing’s leadership using “economic leverage, coercion, and hybrid approaches to advance their interests in the region”. Washington has also tabled a bill which would punish African countries for doing business with Russia, attempting to pressure non-aligned countries in the continent.
In a hypothetical world, at least for NATO and Washington’s most hawkish voices, China may team up with Russia in their agenda on Africa. Yet, despite having conflicting aims, both countries’ advancements arguably testify to the shortcomings of Washington and other Western powers' foreign policies in the continent.
Pressure against Russia
While Russia has claimed some geopolitical victories in Africa since the Ukraine war broke out in February, efforts to sanction and isolate Moscow have apparently triggered even more reactionary policies from Russia.
Before the war, Moscow had already deepened its influence in Africa. This came amid the first ever “Russia-Africa Summit” in Sochi in October 2019, where Russia pledged $12.5 billion in business deals, mainly in arms and grains. Alongside weapons sales, Russia’s Wagner mercenary group has bolstered Moscow’s military clout in the continent, including in Libya, alongside Sudan and more recently Burkina Faso’s military juntas, Mozambique and the Central African Republic (CAR).
At the war’s onset in February, the defiance of many African states to condemn Russia’s incursion on Ukraine at the UN Security Council, including leading economies like Algeria, Ethiopia and South Africa, revealed many countries were torn between Washington and Moscow.
Although the US secured a promise from Burkina Faso not to recruit Russian mercenaries, the ties are evident. In October, coup supporters in Burkina Faso waved Russian flags as they protested near the French Embassy in the capital city of Ouagadougou. Similar displays of support for Russia took place in Niger in September as protestors decried France’s presence.
In addition, other countries have defied Washington and aligned with Moscow, having faced past pressure from the US. Having already faced past sanctions, Zimbabwe has declared strong support for Russia. The Central African Republic (CAR) has also been strongly pro-Russia, and its cryptocurrency adoption in April has attracted speculation that this policy aims to circumvent international sanctions and do business with Russia.
Meanwhile, Putin and Guinea-Bissau’s President Umaro Sissoco Embalo met in Russia on October 25, with the former stating he wants to buy Russian warships and helicopters, an offer which Moscow may consider.
Russia’s ambitions in Africa have also faced setbacks, largely owing to the US’ pressure on African states. Take Sudan, where Russia was forced to abandon its plans for a naval base to project power in the Red Sea. Moreover, with sanctions being a factor in preventing African states buying Russian weapons like Su-35s, Sudan has had to abandon its ties of buying the fighter jets, and it would also prevent other states from buying them.
Though Russia’s influence may be limited, Washington’s pressure has opened a door in which China can enter and offer alternatives. Indeed, in August, Sudan sought to buy Chinese J10s alongside other military equipment from China.
China’s growing clout
With Russia’s limited financial muscle power, China arguably offers a larger threat to the US’ geostrategic interests in Africa than that of Russia – despite Washington’s focus on isolating Moscow.
Beijing has already outmatched both Moscow and Washington on the continent, per its 2013 Belt and Road Initiative, a 70-country development project that has propelled soaring levels of Chinese investment in African infrastructure. Among Beijing’s steps have been low-cost loans, large scale infrastructure projects, including dozens of government buildings, which would help win over support of African states. In fact, very few areas in Africa have not been touched by Chinese investment.
In Ethiopia, where the US’ influence has clearly fallen on deaf-ears, China is a crucial investor. Beijing has given around $13.7 billion worth of loans to Addis Ababa from 2000-2019; in the same period, Ethiopia’s GDP per capita saw an average annual increase of 9.3 percent.
Although China has stood back from Ethiopia, Beijing’s loans and investments have not only encroached its trade routes in the continent but could give states enough confidence to defy Washington.
Indeed, China’s direct loans and investments with no political strings attached have already largely counterbalanced US aid, which often has more political conditions and demands for transparency. Having already enhanced its soft power in the continent during the Covid pandemic by providing vaccines and other equipment, Africa’s economic crises amid food and staple shortages following the Ukraine war could make further Chinese aid and investment seem more enticing over the next decade.
On the other hand, many believe that it would make many of the recipient countries dependent on China.
According to Johns Hopkins University's China Africa Research Initiative, CARI, Beijing wrote off more than $3.4 billion of debt between 2000 and 2019, many of which were interest-free loans to African countries. However, as per the study, state-owned Chinese lenders restructured or refinanced $15 billion.
Considering the fact that the poorest countries in the world face $35 billion in debt-service payments to official and private sector creditors in 2022, with more than 40 percent of the total due to China, this possibility apparently exists.
Implications of a multipolar world
As we move towards a more multipolar world, Africa will naturally have more choices of allegiance and investment. Crucially, African commentators have argued that the continent should not be swayed either by Western or Russian or Chinese ambitions, as continued dominance over their domestic affairs could harm the continent.
The US will have to come to terms with the fact that China is here to stay in Africa. Even so, there is still a gap in finances that Washington and Europe could fill with genuine investment, while also deploying more effective diplomacy in conflicts like Tigray, rather than treating African states as pawns which should be kept from Russia and China.
Although having sought to maintain a unilateral world order since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, it may take time if ever for the US to accept that it can no longer unconditionally call the shots.
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