While China's trade volume in Africa is ten times bigger than Russia's, Moscow is still keen on entrenching its position in the continent through trade and diplomacy.
In recent decades, many countries, especially the global powers, have shown keen interest in expanding their footprint on the African continent. They were seduced by Africa’s potential in terms of natural resources, workforce, geographical location as well as its fast evolving politics.
Over the years, the US, India, Japan and other global powers are increasingly accelerating their investments in the African continent, while China and Russia have already made significant gains in the region.
As a continent rich in terms of resources such as gold, oil, cobalt and uranium, and home to 30 percent of the world’s remaining natural mineral resources, it is understandable why many African nations are constantly embroiled in violent power tussles.
Now with growing clout of global powers in the region, it remains to be seen whether the continent will turn into yet another global battleground after the Middle East.
1. The brief history of China’s background in the continent
China’s relationship with Africa goes back more than 500 years. In the last two decades, Beijing increased its stake by becoming the biggest trading partner on the continent.
In the 1960s and 1970s, China centred its interest on Africa to build ideological solidarity with underdeveloped nations and end Western hegemony, while advancing Chinese-style communism.
However, after the Cold War, particularly in the last two decades, the interest of China in Africa has been restructured around pragmatism in terms of trade, energy and investment.
2. The brief history of Russia’s background in the continent
After the end of the Second World War and as the Cold War set in, Russia’s interest in Africa increased significantly. Between 1960 and 1984, the collaboration between Russia and several African nations multiplied 13 times in terms of trade.
The Soviet Union helped many African countries in decolonising themselves from British and French influences and also trained people from various African countries in the fields of science and technology. Russia also helped several African nations in setting up universities.
Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia withdrew from the region. But in the early 2000s, Russian President Vladimir Putin began to show "limited interest" in Africa. By 2014, when Russia faced a series of sanctions from the West, the country took several steps to increase its influence in the continent.
3. Chinese presence in the continent in terms of trade and politics
Over the years, China has emerged as an indispensable economic force in Africa. In 2018, the country announced it would invest $60 billion in the region, becoming its biggest trade partner.
The first large-scale conference on Sino-African trade was held in Beijing in 2000, with more than 40 African countries participating. Five years later, in November 2006, at the third Beijing Summit of the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC), both China and Africa agreed to widen their collaboration in terms of economy, politics and international affairs.
China-Africa trade values hit their peak in 2014, reaching $215 billion. In the following years until 2018, the value decreased from $215 billion to $148 billion. However, it increased once again to the 2014 high again in 2018. The trade value between these two parties was barely $10 billion in 2000.
Despite Sino-African bilateral exchanges increasing, Africa has been struggling with trade deficits. Since the independence process of African countries, they have struggled to get loans in order to develop their countries by improving infrastructure.
During this process, several loans were offered to African countries by their former colonial powers, the World Bank and IMF also offered loans, however they all came with high interest rates.
Since its interest in Africa started increasing, China has stepped forward and offered loans with fewer conditions. Beijing's cumulative loans to Africa since 2000 amounted to $124 billion by 2016, according to figures compiled by the China-Africa Research Initiative (CARI) at Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies in the United States.
However, by considering recent reports and data, it can be argued that China is expecting privilege in return. For instance, the Democratic Republic of Congo exports to China consist mainly of copper and, to a lesser extent, crude oil and cobalt. Zambia’s exports to China are dominated by copper. Angola and the Congo exports to China consist almost completely of crude oil.
For South Africa, the data from the ITC Trade Map is rather unsatisfactory because 65 percent of exports to China are referred to as “commodities not elsewhere specified”, according to the European Centre for Development Policy (ECDPM) report.
Apparently, China has been becoming dominant in the region by funding the continent in return for importing natural resources and diversifying its energy suppliers.
China is predominantly buying crude oil, copper and iron from Africa. In other words, it is true that China is mainly interested in Africa’s natural resources. China has also been able to find a potential market for its cheap consumer products and is about to take control of the market.
Currently, almost 46 countries out of 55 have been supporting China evidently. When China demanded African countries not recognise Taiwan’s independence, these 46 countries helped China to diplomatically alienate Taiwan. The incident acts as a strong reference for China to seek African countries’ support in the United Nations and international area.
As African countries are no longer totally dependent on Western powers, many of them work closely with China, even seeking counsel from Beijing on matters of internal politics and economy.
4. Russian presence in the continent in terms of trade and politics
Prior to Putin becoming Russia's president, Russia did not have much interest in Africa. It was when Russia faced economic sanctions from the Western powers following its invasion of Crimea that Moscow made its foray into new markets, essentially to diversify its economic assets and satisfy its commercial needs.
Last week's Russia-Africa summit in Sochi was the first of its kind, an attempt to solidify relations.
Although the country has taken several bold steps to entrench its position in the continent, it's still nowhere close to China. China's trade volume in Africa is 10 times bigger than Russia.
At the Sochi summit, Russia signed $12.5 billion of deals with African countries in various areas including energy, weapons and so on. Before signing these deals, Russia had already signed one of the biggest arms sales in the continent.
During an interview with TASS Russian State News Agency, Russian president Putin said: “This is not accidental, as Africa increasingly becomes a continent of opportunities. It possesses vast resources and potential economic attractiveness.”