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Rusudan Zabakhidze is an International Conference of Europeanists coordinator at Council for European Studies at Columbia University and a non-resident fellow at Middle East Institute’s Frontier Europe Initiative. She can be found on Twitter @rusozabakhidze. Divergent Options’ content does not contain information of an official nature nor does the content represent the official position of any government, any organization, or any group.

Title:  Assessment of Sino-Russian Strategic Competition in Africa

Date Originally Written:  July 31, 2020.

Date Originally Published:  October 12, 2020.

Author and / or Article Point of View:  The author believes that increasing Russian and Chinese influence in Africa is yet another external attempt to exploit African resources. The absence of democratic preconditions from cooperation agreements between African countries that work with Russia and China undermines U.S. democratization efforts in the region and create obstacles for international transparency and accountability.

Summary:  The Sino-Russian strategic competition in Africa is characterized by the complex interplay of mutual interests, yet divergent means and ways of achieving the strategic interests. In comparison to China, Russian economic cooperation with African countries is modest, however, deep military cooperation across the continent places Russia in an adventitious position to change the conditions for the economic development by stirring the local or regional instability, if desired.

Text:  Rapid urbanization and the economic rise of the African continent in the past decades have harnessed the potential for a redefined development path. Colonial legacy has earned the European powers a controversial status in contemporary affairs of African countries. Alternatively, China has grasped an opportunity to fill the vacuum and advance its strategic interests. The mainstream discourse around the geopolitical competition in Africa is mostly dominated by the U.S.-China rivalry, however, increasing Russian influence suggests that the current power dynamics across Africa are much more complex.

To assess the comparative advantage or disadvantage of the Russian position in Africa, it is helpful to delineate the key drivers of Russian strategic interests. As a resurgent power, Russia has been challenging the Western-centric world order globally; hence, the African continent represents yet another territory for projecting its global power status. While similar to other external actors in Africa Russia is interested in accessing natural resources[1], Russian connections with African countries are most notable in defense sector. The absence of democratic preconditions for various forms of cooperation serves the mutual interest of Russia and recipient African governments[2].

The Sino-Russian strategic competition in Africa is characterized by the interplay of similar interests, yet different means and ways towards attaining these goals. In terms of projecting the global power image, China and Russia share a common revisionist agenda based on offering an alternative to the western models of governance. Chinese and Russian discourses are built around emphasizing the superiority of their non-interference approach[3] that is based on respectful cooperation in contrast to the colonial practices of European powers. Patterns of rapid urbanization and accelerated economic growth of African countries enable China to draw comparisons to its own past in the 1990s[4]. Such parallels place China in an advantageous position to advocate for its governance model across the continent. China and Russia also try to use the cooperation with African governments as a supporting mechanism for their global power image in other parts of the world. Namely, African countries represent the largest voting bloc in the United Nations and regardless of the diversity of political positions of the national governments, both Russia and China have tried to use their influence over the voting behavior in favor of their positions within the UN system[5].

The differences between the Sino-Russian strategic competition is best visible in the economic cooperation trends. Russian economic engagement in African countries is relatively modest compared to large-scale Chinese investments. This difference is a logical amalgam of general economic trends in both countries and the retrospective of cooperative efforts. Unlike Russia, China has remained a steady interest in Africa since the decolonization period. The establishment of the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation in 2000 supported the facilitation of the cooperation efforts[6]. On the other hand, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia temporarily detached itself from African politics. Belated Russian rapprochement was therefore met with a Chinese dominant presence. African markets with the fastest growing population and increased consumption needs, present an attractive venue for selling Chinese goods[7]. Almost all African countries are benefiting from diversified Chinese foreign direct investment. Oil and extractive natural resources account for a large share of investments, however, financial services, construction, transportation, and manufacturing make up half of Chinese FDI in Africa[8]. Against this backdrop, despite its own rich mineral resources, Russia has a shortage of certain raw materials, including chrome, manganese, mercury, and titanium that are essential for steel production[9]. Therefore, Russian economic interests in African countries mostly revolve around accessing these resources.

Russia’s strategic advantage over China is more visible in military cooperation with African countries. Russia has become the largest supplier of arms to Africa, accounting for 35% of arms exports, followed by China (17%), U.S. (9.6%), and France (6.9%)[10]. Besides arms trade, Russia provides military advice[11]. Reportedly, Wagner Group, a private military company with a history of fighting in Ukraine and Syria and has close ties to the Russian government has also shifted its focus towards Africa[12]. Even though Russia has a marginal advantage in military cooperation over China and western powers, Chinese actions in this direction should not be under-looked. Chinese defense strategy in Africa is based on a comprehensive approach, combining arms sales with other trade and investment deals, cultural exchanges, medical assistance, and building infrastructure. For instance, the package deal for building a Chinese military base in Djibouti covers the large non-military investment projects[13].

In support of the above-given strategic interests, Russia and China are actively using soft power tools. Confucius Institutes that promote Chinese language and culture are rapidly popping up across Africa and are now present in over 40 countries[14]. China is also becoming a popular destination for African students[15]. China also boosts its image through media cooperation. The Chinese Communist Party has organized four annual forums bringing together the representatives of Africa state-owned and private media agencies to discuss the global media environment and the state of African media[16]. These gatherings are unprecedented compared to China’s media-related efforts in other regions. On the other hand, Russia is also actively using the media as a medium for projecting its positive image. Russia Today and Sputnik – media agencies aligning with the discourses favorable to the Russian government, have expanded their reach to the African continent as well[17]. The number of the Russian World Foundation, known as Russkiy Mir, is also increasing in African countries[18]. Somewhat different from the Chinese approach is using the Russian Orthodox Church as the way to approach the Christian communities in Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, and Ethiopia[19]. Even though current Chinese and Russian efforts to promote their image through media and cultural activities are not targeted at deterring the influence of each other, both actors have the potential to exploit the information space through controlled media platforms. Such developments can significantly undermine the social cohesion, as well as the trust and confidence in targeted actors.


[1] Adlbe, J. (2019, November 14). What does Russia really want from Africa? Retrieved July 30, 2020, from https://www.brookings.edu/blog/africa-in-focus/2019/11/14/what-does-russia-really-want-from-africa

[2] Procopio, M. (2019, November 15). Why Russia is not like China in Africa. Retrieved July 30, 2020, from https://www.ispionline.it/en/pubblicazione/why-russia-not-china-africa-24409

[3] Ibid.

[4] Diop, M. (2015, January 13). Lessons for Africa from China’s growth. Retrieved July 31, 2020, from https://www.worldbank.org/en/news/speech/2015/01/13/lessons-for-africa-from-chinas-growth

[5] Spivak, V. (2019, October 25). Russia and China in Africa: Allies or Rivals? Retrieved July 30, 2020 from https://carnegie.ru/commentary/80181

[6] Nantulya, P. (2018, August 30). Grand Strategy and China’s Soft Power Push in Africa. Africa Center for Strategic Studies. Retrieved July 30, 2020, from https://africacenter.org/spotlight/grand-strategy-and-chinas-soft-power-push-in-africa

[7] Maverick, B. (2020, April). The three reasons why Chinese invest in Africa. Retrieved July 30, 2020 from https://www.investopedia.com/articles/active-trading/081315/3-reasons-why-chinese-invest-africa.asp

[8] Pigato, M. (2015). China and Africa: Expanding Economic Ties in and Evolving Global Context. The World Bank. Retrieved July 31, 2020, from https://www.worldbank.org/content/dam/Worldbank/Event/Africa/Investing%20in%20Africa%20Forum/2015/investing-in-africa-forum-china-and-africa.pdf

[9] Hedenskog, J. (2018, December). Russia is Stepping Up its Military Cooperation in Africa. FOI, retrieved July 31, 2020, from https://www.foi.se/rest-api/report/FOI%20MEMO%206604

[10] Adlbe, J. (2019, November 14). What does Russia really want from Africa? Retrieved July 30, 2020, from https://www.brookings.edu/blog/africa-in-focus/2019/11/14/what-does-russia-really-want-from-africa

[11] Russel, M & Pichon E. (2019, November). Russia in Africa. A new area for geopolitical competition. European Parliament’s Research Service, Retrieved July 30, 2020 from https://www.europarl.europa.eu/RegData/etudes/BRIE/2019/642283/EPRS_BRI(2019)642283_EN.pdf

[12] Hauer, N. (2018, August 27). Russia’s Favorite Mercenaries. The Atlantic. Retrieved July 30, 2020, from https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2018/08/russian-mercenaries-wagner-africa/568435

[13] Benabdallah, L. (2018). China-Africa military ties have deepened. Here are 4 things to know. The Washington Post. Retrieved July 30, 2020, from https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2018/07/06/china-africa-military-ties-have-deepened-here-are-4-things-to-know

[14] Nantulya, P. (2018, August 30). Grand Strategy and China’s Soft Power Push in Africa. Africa Center for Strategic Studies. Retrieved July 30, 2020, from https://africacenter.org/spotlight/grand-strategy-and-chinas-soft-power-push-in-africa

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Arbunies, P. (2019). Russia’s sharp power in Africa: the case of Madagascar, CAR, Sudan and South Africa, retrieved July 31, 2020, from https://www.unav.edu/web/global-affairs/detalle/-/blogs/russia-s-sharp-power-in-africa-the-case-of-madagascar-central-africa-republic-sudan-and-south-africa

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid.