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Jun 29, 2023

A Growing Influence

China and, to a far lesser degree, Russia, have expanded their economic and military engagement with countries in Africa and Latin America. If Europe wants to counter this, it needs to look closely at what has worked.

An aerial view of roads and the construction site of The Iconic Tower skyscraper, which is being built by China State Construction Engineering Corp (CSCEC) in the New Administrative Capital (NAC) east of Cairo, is pictured through the window of a plane, Egypt April 10, 2021. Picture taken April 10, 2021.
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The ongoing Russia-Ukraine war has intensified great power rivalry. In the United States, the Biden administration has sought to cast this rivalry within an ideological framework as a struggle between democracy and autocracy. This characterization may appeal to certain segments of the respective domestic audiences in the US and to a lesser extent in Europe, but it finds little resonance with the rest of the world. In fact, most countries in the Global South have been to varying degrees ambivalent in their reactions to the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

While many states voted against Russia in several United Nations resolutions, most of them have also refrained from imposing sanctions on Moscow, or from outright condemnation of the Russian invasion. Some have even refused to refer to it as such, preferring the Russian and Chinese term, “special military operation.” This ambivalence has been particularly notable in Latin America and Africa, casting a light on the matter of growing Russian and Chinese influence in these regions.

Russian and Chinese Engagement

There are important distinctions in terms of the vehicles and mechanisms through which China and Russia have pursued their respective interests in Latin America and Africa. Over the last two decades, Chinese economic influence has grown considerably through a range of development initiatives and economic opportunities. Through these initiatives, Beijing has become the largest trade partner of virtually every country in the two regions, as well as a generous source of infrastructure aid and loans. This has been most vividly demonstrated with the expansive Belt and Road Initiative.

In terms of security relations, however, the Chinese presence has been significantly smaller. With the exception of its first military base in Djibouti and active participation in peacekeeping efforts in Africa, China’s role in and contribution to the regional security architectures on both continents have been marginal. However, it can be expected to grow in coming years as Beijing’s military capability strengthens in support of its geopolitical ambitions.

Russian global economic heft pales in comparison to China, the US, or the European Union. Nevertheless, what it lacks by way of economic inducements to exercise influence, it has compensated by maintaining considerable security influence, especially in Africa. It has done so primarily through arms exports—a longstanding feature of Russia’s global engagement inherited from the days of the Soviet Union.

Putin’s Friends

In Latin America, Russia has been a mainstay source of military-technical cooperation for the militaries of Cuba, Venezuela, and Nicaragua—all of which have provided Russia with access to bases in exchange for military hardware—and also for those of Bolivia and Peru. Others, such as Argentina, Colombia, Ecuador, and Brazil, also see Russia as a viable source of arms even though they have taken a more diversified approach to defense procurement, which includes purchasing US- and European-made weapons as well. In the larger scheme of the global arms industry, however, it bears noting that Russian exports to Latin America are still only 5 percent of their overall arms exports, most of which head to destinations in Africa and Asia. Moreover, one country alone—Venezuela—accounts for the lion’s share (80 percent) of all Russian arms exports to the region.

Other avenues through which Russia has exerted its presence and played a role in shaping affairs in the region are through privatized security services and clandestine operations. These activities have been most evident in fragile states in both Latin America and Africa, where sanctioned regimes lacking in options have turned to Moscow for aid and support, and where the private military contractor Wagner Group has been particularly active in countries bedeviled by intractable internal conflicts.

In Latin America, Russia has maintained a network of relationships with a small number of leftist or socialist governments. These tend to rest on the personal rapport between Russian leaders (primarily President Vladimir Putin) and left-leaning counterparts such as the former president of El Salvador, Sanchez Ceren, and the Nicaraguan incumbent, Daniel Ortega. The Russian presence and influence in Latin America has been the proverbial thorn in the side of the US, which considers the region its traditional sphere of influence. Beyond security affairs, however, Russia’s influence has been limited. While trade ties with Latin America have grown over the years from $5.6 billion in 2000 to $14.1 billion in 2019, it accounts for less than 1 percent of regional trade. Moreover, more than half of this trade has been concentrated in Brazil and Mexico.

Wagner’s Playground

Russia has had greater success in influencing affairs in Africa than in Latin America. A combination of neglect on the part of Western powers, geographical proximity to Russia, endemically weak state institutions, prevalence of intractable conflicts both within and between states, and a proliferation of non-state actors render Africa susceptible to the influx of arms. Coupled with Russia’s expansive role and interest in the global arms trade, this confluence of contexts has enabled Moscow to establish a presence in the region.

Russia has also intensified its courting of Africa following its annexation of Crimea in 2014 which sent relations with the West into a tailspin, and this is likely to accelerate following the invasion of Ukraine. To enhance its appeal in Africa, Russia parlays its Soviet legacy as a supporter of African decolonization as it provides weapons exports—nearly half of all arms exports into Africa come from Russia—for a continent where the arms trade (both a licit and illicit) continues to flourish.

Moscow’s presence is further augmented by “private” military contractors like the Wagner Group—now acknowledged by Russian President Vladimir Putin to be fully state-funded—that have been an instrumental arm of Russian involvement in conflict zones in Libya, Mali, and the Central African Republic, where Wagner mercenaries provide protection, combat support, and military training. Importantly, through these interventions—especially in the Sahel, where anti-French sentiment runs high—Russia has also managed to gain access to resources. (How the attempted coup against Putin led by Wagner leader Yevgeny Prigozhin on June 23-24 will impact Wagner’s future in Africa remained unclear at the time of publication.)

Playing the Economic Card

The Chinese presence in both these regions has been overwhelmingly economic in nature. Beijing is the top trading partner of practically every country in Latin America and Africa, and its role as a source of foreign investment has also been growing in both regions.

China’s interest in Latin America has mostly been focused on gaining access to its natural resources—both raw materials and agricultural products—which it requires to satisfy growing domestic consumption. These interests have been pursued via investments in and mergers and acquisitions of regional companies, particularly in the energy and minerals industries. Likewise, trade ties have targeted the natural resources and commodities sectors. So lucrative have Chinese trade and investments been for Latin American economies that they have prompted a regional trend of reprimarizacin (return to primary resource industries) where local economies have doubled down on natural resource production in order to capitalize on Chinese demand.

Similarly, China’s most visible and credible influence in Africa is economic, with the trade volume reaching a peak of $254 billion in 2021 despite the COVID-19 pandemic. Oil has accounted for more than half of all Chinese imports from Africa, followed by minerals and metals. Chinese investments in Africa have risen sharply from $74.8 million in 2003 to $5.4 billion in 2018, and it committed $153 billion in financial loans to African states between 2000 and 2019, 80 percent of which has gone toward economic and social infrastructure projects mainly in transport, power, telecommunications, and water. They are not evenly spread, however. Angola alone accounts for 30 percent of China’s African loan commitments.

The appeal of Chinese capital derives not only from the fact that it is fairly readily available, and increasingly in large amounts. It also meets infrastructure needs, comes with no strings attached, respects indigenous choices of development, and can be used to bargain with Western financial institutions. Chinese lending also dovetails with Africa’s own agenda of industrialization, particularly in mining and manufacturing. What's more, China has allowed for resource-backed lending, whereby loans can be repaid—at least in part—through commodities. Indeed, this has become a major feature of Chinese economic relations with Angola, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Guinea-Bissau, Ghana, and Sudan. Of course, China’s economic engagement in Africa has not occurred without controversy. A particularly thorny issue has been the matter of labor relations, in which Beijing has been criticized for preferring to import Chinese labor rather than hire a local workforce.

Understanding the Appeal of Russia and China

It is important to state at the outset that African and Latin American countries are not passive pawns that are there to be manipulated by external powers, not least by Russia and China. Indeed, they have their own expectations and conditions that shape their interactions with these powers. Two, in particular, warrant mention.

First, Russia and China are obviously not the only powers present and active in these regions. The US continues to cast a long shadow over Latin American affairs, from the 1823 Monroe Doctrine through the Cold War to the present day. In Africa, European colonialism has left something of a complicated legacy, the consequences of which continue to reverberate to some extent—for instance, through the controversial concept of “Francafrique” through which Paris seeks to continue playing a role in the region in conjunction with its former colonies in sub-Saharan Africa. In many ways, the enduring perception of Western dominance continues to invigorate politics in these regions as well. In addition, regional powers such as Brazil and Argentina in Latin America, and Nigeria, Kenya, and South Africa in Africa aspire to lead and shape geopolitical and geo-economic affairs in their neighborhood.

Second, there is high demand in Africa and Latin America for both development and security. The two objectives are at times intertwined, for instance in the growing need for security around development projects, but they can also undermine each other, for example when the pursuit of security in the context of intractable internal conflicts undermines prospects for development.

Diverging Visions and Strategies

An important point worth noting is the comparative difference between China and Russia in terms of the vision and strategy that purportedly guide their engagement with these two regions. Whether in Latin America or Africa, Moscow has visibly lacked a clear blueprint behind its engagement with regional states. Russia’s initiatives appear piecemeal and ad hoc, and in the case of private security contractors, fall beyond the formal remit of the state. In the extreme case, the flow of Russian weapons to Africa, accompanied by the practice of covert operations, has had the deleterious effect of undermining stability by worsening African conflicts.

In comparison, China has already published two white papers, in 2008 and 2016, articulating its foreign policy strategy toward Latin America. This effort has been supplemented by forum diplomacy with a host of Latin American regional organizations such as the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States, the Organization of American States, the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America, and the Southern Common Market (Mercosur), to name a few. In the same vein, China’s engagement with the Global South has been part of larger strategic initiatives such as the Belt and Road Initiative, in which African states have a major stake, the Global Security Initiative, and the Global Development Initiative.

Portents for Europe

The preceding look at the mechanisms and avenues of Russian and Chinese engagement with Latin America and Africa suggest several lessons for Europe.

First, economic engagement remains the most effective tool through which geopolitical influence can be advanced on both continents, and indeed in the Global South more generally. Economic development and opportunity remain a core interest in most countries in these regions. In this respect, Russian economic engagement has been minimal and limited, whereas China has been far more successful. To name just one example, China has managed to effect shifts in diplomatic recognition in Latin American states from Taiwan to China, using economic ties as leverage.

Second, economic engagement is most positively received when there are no accompanying political or ideological obligations. Arguably the most enduring lesson from Chinese engagement is the fact that their initiatives, be they trade, investments, or loans, have been welcomed by most states in the Global South precisely for that reason. Indeed, China’s preaching of the principle of non-interference has allowed it to make significant inroads in these regions in a relatively short period of time.

Third, in pursuing their own narrow interests in terms of challenging the dominant global economic, financial, and political order, which they consider Western-centric, both Moscow and Beijing have capitalized on the growing appeal of a Global South narrative that turns on themes such as respect for independence and sovereignty (the Russian invasion of Ukraine notwithstanding)—not to mention opposition to Western interventionism, hegemony, and “neocolonialism.”

Because of colonial histories and a record of devasting interventions, there is a deep well of distrust that exists in many states within the Global South toward the West, admittedly too caricatured a generalization, and this has come to be expressed in the skepticism that many non-Western countries have shown toward the American and European narrative on the Russia-Ukraine war. The fact that Western powers have been focusing on Russia’s war against Ukraine while other conflicts and protracted humanitarian crises, such as those in Palestine, Ethiopia, and Yemen, go barely noticed in their capitals is not lost on many states in the Global South either. Whether intentional or not, this has given currency to criticisms of double-standards and hypocrisy that are frequently levelled against the Western powers.

A Clear-Eyed Look

The stark reality is that Russia and especially China have demonstrated a keener sense of how to enhance their appeal to the states of Africa and Latin America—which account for the majority of the Global South—many of whom still nurse residual misgivings and suspicions of “the West,” which in their strategic calculus is dominated by the US, but also includes Western Europe.

Looking ahead, Russian and Chinese influence in Latin America and Africa is poised to grow further as the geopolitical climate becomes even more polarized. In recalibrating their own approach to Latin America and Africa, Europe would be well advised to have a clear-eyed look at what has worked in Moscow’s and especially Beijing’s engagements, and why.

Joseph Chinyong Liow is Dean and Tan Kah Kee Chair Professor in Comparative and International Politics at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore.