Russia and China in Africa: Prospective Partners or Asynmetric Rivals?

Since 2000, China and Russia have established their standing as resurgent great powers in Africa. The expansion of China’s influence in Africa has been undergirded by its economic might. This has been exemplified by the proliferation of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) across Africa and Beijing’s lead role in facilitating connectivity projects across the continent. Although China’s trade and investments in African countries have furthered socio-economic development, concerns have grown about their impact on the competitiveness of local industries and their potential to erode the sovereignty of countries in sub-Saharan Africa. Russia’s resurgence in Africa appears opportunistic, as Moscow has capitalised on state fragility and protracted conflicts. This it has done to secure mining concessions, lucrative arms deals and anti-Western partners to hedge against the impact of US and European sanctions. However, Russia’s involvement in Africa is bolstered by a strategic pursuit of great power status, which crystallised during Yevgeny Primakov’s tenure as foreign minister from 1996 to 1998. To this end, Russia has positioned itself as a crisis-proof partner for countries facing economic isolation, deploying private military contractors to influence the trajectory of local conflicts in its favour and amplifying its role as a conflict arbiter. Although the Soviet Union and China were asymmetric rivals in Africa from the 1960s to the 1980s, the current Sino–Russian relationship is more cordial. Russia and China coordinate on challenging Western norms, eroding US-initiated unilateral sanctions and supporting non-interference in the internal affairs of states. However, this relationship in Africa is characterised by limited strategic coordination in the economic and security spheres, and infrequent dialogue on regional conflicts. These limitations suggest that Sino–Russian relations in Africa resemble a competitive partnership and fall short of the level of bilateral cooperation between the two countries or the scale of their collaboration in multilateral institutions.