Russia’s return to Africa: A blessing for China or not?


Authors: Yang Yi-zhong and Paul Wang (Wang Li)

On October 23-24, beautiful Sochi, a summer resort in Russia, hosted the inaugural Russia-Africa summit with more than 50 leaders of African states participating. It is a symbolic that the forum was co-chaired by President Putin and President Abdel el-Sisi of Egypt which is the strongest military power of the continent. So the implications of this summit must go beyond that.

It is a cliché that Russia slipped into a regional power after the disintegration of the former Soviet Union (USSR). This sort of discussions are either ambiguous or groundless. As early as the 1990s, just after the fall of the USSR, Henry Kissinger and many other geo-strategists have argued that throughout history, Russia’s achievements and ambitions have kept pace with its physical dimensions. On two occasions, Russia’s strategic depth and Russian people’s capacity for endurance prevented a conqueror from dominating Europe: Napoleon in the 19th century and Hitler in the 20th century. At the turn of the new millennium, then Prime Minister Putin firmly said, “For Russians, a strong state is not an anomaly, given this, …… we must remake Russia a great, powerful and mighty state.”

Though controversial, Putin has obviously kept his promise to Russia and the world. Despite its economics looks not remarkable as expected, Russian military capacity has been fully recovered up to its former level during the Cold War. Diplomatically, Russia and China have enhanced a series of fruitful and pragmatic cooperation over the past years in view of the comprehensive strategic partnership of coordination. And the two Eurasian powers have worked steadfastly to innovate the fields and modes of cooperation and expand and deepen the strategic ties between their armed forces as well. Geopolitically, Russia has performed deftly in the Middle East so that it once again acts as a guarantor of the regional order and the initiator and major balancer of the world equilibrium. In light of this, Russia’s return to Africa is a natural result since there have existed strong historical traditions of friendship and solidarity in support of the Africans for freedom and independence. As a note from the Russian Embassy revealed, “Russia will continue to contribute to ensuring peace, stability and progress in Africa, both bilaterally and through international organizations. Now eagerly acting as a new civilian power, Russia has called for cooperation with African states in the fields of digital development, nuclear & high-technologies, humanitarian and social spheres.

Is Russia’s return to Africa a challenge to the rise of China’s status or a new opportunity for their work in order to expand and deepen their shared strategic interests?  No doubt, Western media like to intend to exaggerate any disagreements between China and Russia with a view to exploring the natural competition as major powers. Yet, it is unwise to try to sow the differences between them.

First, historically the Soviet Union supported Africa’s national independence during the post-WWII era, and the Russian influence has been there even after the fall of the Soviet Union. Now with Russia striving to be a major power on the global stage, the “return” to Africa is inevitable. Second, geopolitically it can be argued that Russia’s Middle East strategy has made remarkable deeds which have obviously raised its confidence. As U.S. troops withdraw from Syria, Russia’s influence over the region is surging. In addition, its relationship with Iran is closer than ever before and its relations with Turkey and Saudi Arabia are equally rising. With the proximity of the Middle East and Africa, Putin’s strategic move into the one area can be seen as an extension of Russia’s victory in another. As a Chinese scholar held, like many other countries such as the U.S., Europe, China and Japan, Russia wants to be treated as one of the major powers in a global stage. Due to this, it is proper to say that Russia’s return to Africa has been driven by its conventional strategy of the great power diplomacy to seek geopolitical and geo-economic opportunities whenever it sees properly and necessarily. In brief, faced with western blockage, Russia’s return to Africa is surely a showcase of its capability to engage with the continent against Western wishes.

China’s role in the world has changed dramatically. As its economy has grown into the second largest of the world, the future of China’s prosperity has hinged on it becoming an increasingly relevant stakeholder in broader global affairs, with the success of China increasingly dependent on securing a stable and wider global share. Due to this, China’s foreign policy has placed a growing emphasis on multilateral forms of engagement and cooperation. Although Russia is bound to seek more economic activities globally, its political concerns are the main driving force of Russia’s return to Africa. First, Russia and African countries are all rich in energy and natural resources, therefore, arms sales dictate the trade between the two sides. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), 28% of Russia’s arms exports goes to sub-Saharan Africa over the past 6 years.

In effect, China and Russia would be able to cooperate with each other in terms of their relative advantages: China is much stronger in finance and infrastructure, and Russia is much better in the advanced arms and heavy equipment. Also due to the common standing on offering aid and investment without political strings attached, China and Russia would not compete with each ideologically. In this regard, both powers’ competitor should be the West which has long asked structural change prior to providing help. Finally, given Russia’s staggering economic growth, the “return” to Africa for Russia is more symbolic rather than immediate move. In light of this, China should welcome Russia’s return as a potential counterbalance to the growing presence of the United States. As Chinese official line goes, for the sake of the current world under profound changes unseen in a century, while peace and win-win cooperation are irreversible trends, there is still an urgency for China and Russia to work together in securing their core interests and common development. As long as Moscow sees its presence in Africa in very broader terms, China and Russia would be more likely strategic partners than competitors. This was seemingly testified by former US National Security adviser John Bolton announced in 2018 that a new US strategy for Africa partly aimed at countering both China and Russia.

In sum, China and Russia have forged their strategic relations in a genuine sense due to their long-term deliberations. Therefore, their cooperation in Africa would be more proactive and pragmatic. Since 2014, military co-operation agreements between Russia and African states have been signed; and then during 2017-18, more arms deals were done with African states, covering fighter jets, combat and transport helicopters, anti-tank missiles and etc. Yet, Africa is really not a major defense market but a huge area for FDI and lower-technologies and cheaper goods. Now EU, China, the U.S., Japan and India give far more development aid and invest more in Africa than Russia does. Consider this, Moscow is nowhere near restoring the status that the Soviet Union once enjoyed on the continent. Yet, the nature of Sino-Africa relationship has always been laced with uncertainty which an U.S.-led bloc would not have, due to this, China-Russian relationship would be likely a dual insurance for their common interests in the huge and diverse continent.

Yang Yi-zhong
Yang Yi-zhong
Yang Yizhong, Ph.D. candidate at Political Science, Institute of National Development and Security Studies, Jilin University, China. He graduated from Rutgers, the States University of New Jersey in the US where he received a master degree, he also interned and worked at the United Nations Headquarters for one year.


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