Africa. A continent of vast potential. And a continent where global powers such as China and Russia have been increasingly active over the recent years. It is also a continent with which the European Union (EU) is striving to create more cooperation. The approaches of these three actors are, however, different in their nature.
The EU has over the years worked closely with Africa on a wide variety of issues. The Africa-EU Partnership was established already back in 2000 and the two have worked together and engaged in political and policy dialogues, ever since. The goal of the partnership is to bring Africa and Europe closer together by economic cooperation and sustainable development. The two continents in addition share interests such as climate change and global security.
There also exists the Joint Africa-EU strategy (JAES) which seeks to promote peace, security, democratic governance, human rights, gender equality, basic freedoms, and regional and continental integration to name but a few.
The EU is thus actively engaging with Africa and helping it via partnership of equality and mutual interest. The EU has over the years provided North African countries with benefits from the financial instrument ENPI which is given to all countries that are part of the European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP). The two continents also work on peacekeeping operations, global pandemics and climate change.
The upcoming European Commission under Ursula von der Leyen almost introduced an Africa commissioner. Due to the outcry over this, the idea was abandoned. Finland’s Jutta Urpilainen, however, is set to become the EU’s International Partnership commissioner who is tasked with creating a new Africa strategy and advancing the partnership with the continent. Part of the portfolio is to reach partnerships with countries of migration origin and transit and adapt bilateral funding to achieve migration management objectives. Commissioner-designate Urpilainen is also going work on ensuring the empowerment of women and girls and gender equality.
The EU’s approach to Africa is thus based on a partnership with common goals of enhancing the capabilities and stability of the continent. While the European countries certainly have economic interests in Africa, the EU works on the basis of equality and mutual interests and seeks to work together on pressing issues such as climate change.
China has been present in Africa most of the 21st century. The Chinese companies have actively expanded in different parts of Africa while some European companies have been wondering where they could grow. While the Chinese growth in the continent might now be decreasing, it has still been substantial throughout the 2000s.
China’s main role in Africa has been its participation in the investments on infrastructure and the loans it has given to different states. China has, for example, been funding African roads, bridges, solar power plants and oil pipes. Most of these projects are funded by the Chinese state, not by any private companies.
Why then is Africa of interest to China? There are multiple answers. To name but a few, Africa has a great strategic location and it is abundant in materials and resources. China has been seen mainly interested in geopolitics and not economics, for its focus has been on the infrastructure.
The Chinese funded projects have served Africa in its efforts to build and upgrade its infrastructure. Through the Chinese investments and loans, the continent has been helped to fulfil its potential of becoming a greater economic power in the world. The trade between Africa and China has also grown drastically over the years, for the volume of trade was 10 billion dollars in 2000 and in 2017 it was already over 190 billion dollars.
However, the loans China has given are now dept for the African states. One reason for China’s decreasing involvement now is that some of the African states are about to hit their dept ceilings and they cannot loan any more money. So, while the dept of the African states is increasing, China’s involvement has been decreasing. At least momentarily.
Russia is another state that has been increasing its presence in Africa. While the country did not show that much interest in the continent in the beginning of this century, its attention has shifted there after its relationship with the Western states started to deteriorate in 2014 over the sanctions and the Crimean annexation. Moscow has been stated to be looking for new geopolitical friends as well as business opportunities.
Russia has started to increase its presence in several African countries creating ties with the rulers and, for example, by making military deals. Russia has military presence in the continent, and it is involved in peacekeeping missions, for example in Central African Republic.
Whereas China’s role in Africa is mainly economic, Russia has been focusing on military, humanitarian and political cooperation. Russia also does some economic projects and assists with police training. Russia in addition seeks to sell nuclear technology to the African states and it has oil and gas deals with some states. Moreover, it is big armament supplier to states such as Egypt, Angola and Sudan. Russia’s trade with Africa in 2017 rose by 26 percent.
Russia is now also seeking to develop tides even further, for last month it hosted the first ever Russia-Africa Summit in Sochi. During the Summit, President Vladimir Putin announced that Russia would double its trade with the African states over the next five years and it was estimated that almost 50 agreements were signed.
While Russia’s status in Africa decreased after the collapse of the Soviet Union, it seems now be well on its way to restore its presence in the continent.
These three powers thus have different approaches to the African continent. Those of China and Russia are similar and it could be said that Russia is following in China’s footprints. It is not alone in this. The other emerging powers Brazil, India and South-Africa have also actively increased their trade in the continent, and their trade volumes are currently bigger than those of Russia.
The emerging powers China, India and Russia are perhaps benefitting from the fact than unlike many European countries, they have no colonial past in Africa. The Soviet Union actually supported the independence movements on the continent.
What also differentiates China’s and Russia’s approach from that of the EU, is that the two claim that they act under the principle of non-interference meaning that they don’t ask for conditions on democratic development and human rights. The reality on non-interference is of course another matter but the word probably has a nice ring to it that sells.
The EU has relied on an approach that seeks to build partnership between the two continents. Russia’s and China’s approach has been different but they two have also used softer policy tools such as creating science and culture centres. China has established over 50 institutes in the continent, whereas Russia has them in eight different countries. China’s soft power in addition includes the use of aid programmes.
China seems to be the leading outside actor in Africa given the volume of its trade there, the investments, culture centres and so on. However, as some of the states there are starting to feel too dependent on China, they may start looking for other alternatives, such as Russia.
It remains to be seen how the EU and the Commission’s new Africa strategy will balance the scales. It also remains to be seen which approach is the most beneficial one for the outside powers, and more importantly what will be most beneficial for the African states themselves.
TEXT Peppi Heinikainen
The author has a BA degree in European Studies from the Maastricht University and a MA degree in International Peace and Security from King’s College London. The author has specialised in the EU defence and security policies, peace processes and negotiations, and Russian politics.