China and Russia build new ties with Africa as US struggles to assert itself in region
China and Russia have been forging new ties with Africa, a continent in which the United States has struggled to assert itself under President Donald Trump. As Newsweek writes, Beijing has long prioritized its relationship with the continent, a frequent stop for Chinese diplomats and investors, and the People's Republic has increasingly sought to boost engagement in the defense sector as well. On Sunday, the first China-Africa Peace and Security Forum brought together nearly 100 senior representatives from the defense departments of 50 African countries and the African Union, including 15 defense ministers and chiefs of general staff, "to discuss new approaches of China-Africa security cooperation in the new era," according to the official website of the Chinese armed forces.
In addition to hosting a number of projects associated with Chinese President Xi Jinping's Belt and Road Initiative involving billions of dollars worth of infrastructure and energy projects, Africa is also home to China's only overseas military base, in Djibouti, where the U.S. recently accused the Chinese military of "irresponsible actions" at the Pentagon's own base there.
Washington has increasingly cautioned African countries against accepting Chinese influence, but the ongoing security forum showcased resilient relations between China and its partners thousands of miles away.
"In the face of new situations, the common languages, aspirations and interests of China and Africa in the peace and security field have been increasing," Major General Song Yanchao, deputy director of the Chinese Defense Ministry's Office for International Military Cooperation, was cited at saying on Wednesday. "Closer cooperation between the two sides means embracing new and precious historical opportunities."
At an estimated 1.2 billion people, Africa's combined population is about 200 million less than that of China—but its $2 trillion GDP is just a sixth of that of the People's Republic, the world's second-largest economy. Of the 54 nations in Africa, some 39 have signed documents pledging cooperation with the Belt and Road Initiative, through which Xi has vowed to expand his country's economic footprint by paving new corridors through Asia, Africa, Europe and as far as Latin America.
The plan has raised concerns within Africa and abroad that Beijing could trap developing countries in debt and use it as leverage against their internal affairs, something Chinese officials have repeatedly denied. Among the admirers of China's approach, however, was Russia, which itself has sought to project its growing influence in Africa.
At a meeting Tuesday to discuss improving Moscow's investment in Africa, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov told business leaders "there is probably a good reason to pay attention to the experience of China, which provides its enterprises with state guarantees and subsidies, thus ensuring the ability of companies to work on a systemic and long-term basis."
The following day, Lavrov received Ivory Coast Foreign Minister Marcel Amon-Tanoh and told reporters that Russia wanted "to bring relations with Africa to a qualitatively different level." This included not only boosting investments, but making "a significant contribution" in the field of security—specifically in battling the threat of jihadi organizations such as the Islamic State militant group (ISIS), Al-Qaeda, Boko Haram and Al-Shabab and combatting piracy off the coasts of West and East Africa.
Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov, the presidential envoy for the Middle East and Africa, said Tuesday roughly 35 leaders have officially confirmed their participation in the upcoming Russia-Africa Summit in Sochi in October, according to the state-run Tass Russian News Agency. Bogdanov said he believed that "at least 40 leaders will come."
While China and Russia boasted about their record trade figures with Africa, the tone was very different when U.S. officials recently paid a visit: At last month's U.S.-Africa Business Summit in Mozambique, Deputy Commerce Secretary Deputy Secretary Karen Dunn Kelley noted that exports into Africa have decreased by 32 percent since 2014.
"We know that American companies offer an unrivaled value proposition. Yet, we have lost ground to the increasingly-sophisticated, but too often opaque business practices of foreign competitors," Kelley said.
The Trump administration has repeatedly criticized Beijing and Moscow's inroads into Africa, accusing them of shady dealings that would ultimately not benefit the interests of the continent, and certainly not those of Washington. In April, U.S. African Command chief Army General Stephen Townsend told the House Armed Services Committee that China and Russia were "offering a lot of military assistance and a lot of economic assistance but there's a whole lot of strings attached to that assistance."
Still, other than Egypt, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has still not traveled to Africa. His predecessor, Rex Tillerson, saw his tour there in March 2017 cut short when he was unceremoniously fired by Trump, who has never set foot on the continent.