OPINION-Lost ground: How China and Russia are outflanking the US in Africa

OPINION-Lost ground: How China and Russia are outflanking the US in Africa

Many African nations have arguably seen China’s no-strings attached approach as more attractive than loans from US-based financial institutions such as the International Monetary Fund and World Bank- Washington may have to indeed accept its limited leverage over Africa. It’s clearly a signpost of our times that US no longer remains the dominant power and would have to accept a multipolar world order we have found ourselves in

By Jonathan Fenton Harvey

-The author is a researcher and journalist focusing on conflict and geopolitics in the Middle East and North Africa, primarily related to the Gulf region.

ISTANBUL (AA) - Joe Biden's first term as the US president has been beleaguered with challenges. That has ranged from justifying support for Israel’s onslaught on Gaza and managing subsequent regional tensions, to say nothing of the Russia-Ukraine war and the stand-off with China in the Asia-Pacific.

Yet Biden’s broad focus has also reinforced the long-standing perception that the US doesn’t care about Africa. And on his watch, strategic missteps have allowed Russia and China to strengthen their footholds on the continent and capitalise upon Africa's shifting sands.

This year, Biden has faced a strategic blow in East Africa. After a military junta took over in July 2023, Niger has now ended its military cooperation with the US, including the use of a drone facility, with American troops set to leave by September. That reveals a stark backlash against Western military presence in the Sahel.

To Washington’s dismay, Russia has already moved in to fill the vacuum. In April, Russian military advisors went to Niger to train the military in using advanced air defense systems. Meanwhile in May, its forces moved to a base near the US base, putting its troops close to the US troops as the latter see out their final days in the country. Niger's actions suggest that some countries in the region may have felt bullied by Washington and are now looking for new partners, with Russia and China at the forefront.


- Weakening leverage

Along with its deteriorating relationship with Niger's new military rulers, Washington also struggles to wield significant influence in Sudan, where its brutal war since April 2023 continues to tear the country apart.

Despite calls from the US senators to sanction warring factions like the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), which is aligned with Russia, Washington has struggled to rein in them.

Many onlookers, at least Sudanese civilians, will feel the US could have done more to prevent this rift between military leaders, which resulted in the outbreak of the war. After all, it was the US which brokered a unity government between the military and civilian factions following the 2019 revolution against Omar al-Bashir's regime. In hindsight, Niger and Sudan could be described as microcosms of the wider US failures.

For too long, the US has relied on a robust military presence for securing its influence, particularly viewing Africa through the lens of counterterrorism. In turn, it has neglected genuine investment in the countries’ stability and development. But crucially, it has failed to utilize diplomacy on the continent.

Indeed, while Kenya’s President William Ruto visited Washington in April, that visit from a key African ally was the first state visit of an African leader to the US since 2008. And despite Biden hosting an Africa Summit in 2022, he didn’t follow up on a proposed trip in 2023.


- China and Russia’s influence

Along with these diplomatic shortcomings, the US is also losing out to China in terms of economic partnerships with African nations, posing another threat to Washington’s long-term influence. As a manufacturing giant of cheap goods, China has become the largest trading partner of almost all African nations, gradually replacing the US in the past two decades.

In contrast with the US disjointed approach, China has pursued a long-term and comprehensive strategy, including vast investments in civilian and government infrastructure, with countries like Ethiopia, Zambia, and Angola being the central benefactors.

Many African nations have arguably seen China’s no-strings attached approach as more attractive than loans from the US-based financial institutions such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank. These institutions have provided loans while demanding reforms like privatization and fiscal liberalism and have attracted criticism of infringing on nations’ sovereignty and serving the US interests.

China’s economic dominance has secured it more allies on the continent, which may help boost its support in the United Nations Security Council (UNSC). At least on the civil society level, China became more popular than the US among Africans in 2023, according to Gallup, [1] as approval for the US has steadily declined since 2008.

Despite possessing fewer military assets than the US, China's naval base in Djibouti and its investments in over 100 African ports have heightened Washington's concerns about potential new Chinese naval bases, especially along West Africa's Atlantic Coast.

As for Russia, despite being heavily bogged down in Ukraine, it has expanded its military footprint in Africa through its Africa Corps, rebranded from the Wagner Group. It’s already built close ties not only with Niger’s military junta and Sudan’s RSF, but its mercenaries have also operated in the Central African Republic and Libya – raising alarm bells within Europe too.


- Long-term prospects in Africa

Ultimately, these shifting geopolitical tides will certainly boost Russia and China, not just politically, but in granting them access to valuable natural resources. However, Russia’s limited military resources and China’s reticence to engage in countries’ affairs raise question marks over whether they can provide stability and peacekeeping.

Rather than a straightforward replacement of the US by Russia and China, medium powers in West Asia are also seeking to benefit. For example, Iran has courted Niger’s military junta for its own uranium enrichment and supplied drones to Sudan’s armed forces. Similarly, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), emerging as an influential power in East Africa, has aligned with Russia in Sudan.

Despite Washington’s indignation of this new order, it may be too little too late to change things. While the Biden administration has engaged in limited diplomatic overtures, it has also upped its own investments [2] to $14.2 billion late last year, in a bid to counter Beijing’s economic dominance.

However, Washington may have to indeed accept its limited leverage over Africa. It’s clearly a signpost of our times that the US no longer remains the dominant power and would have to accept a multipolar world order we have found ourselves in.

[1] https://news.gallup.com/poll/644222/loses-soft-power-edge-africa.aspx

[2] https://www.voanews.com/a/us-invests-in-africa-in-effort-to-counter-chinese-influence-/7399128.html

*Opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Anadolu.

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