As Ukraine diverts attention, Russia and China march in Africa: Peter Apps

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LONDON — As China began final preparations for its first Horn of Africa peace summit from June 20-21 in Ethiopia this week, African Union Chairman and President of Senegal Macky Sall was at Paris to pressure his French counterpart Emanuel Macron to ease sanctions on Russia to avert a food crisis on the continent.

While Western nations are deeply concerned about Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine this year, Russia and China are on the march in Africa, using their very different strategies to pursue and gain access to their interests – to growing concern. of the United States and its European allies. , feared that their influence on the continent was in serious decline.

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So far, 2022 has seen the Kremlin dramatically increase its activities in Mali in particular, with suspected Russian mercenaries from the Wagner Group blamed for a dramatic increase in civilian casualties in its long war. The global spike in food and fuel prices triggered by the war in Ukraine has hit Africa hard, with Russian President Vladimir Putin also courting African Union Chairman Sall during a visit to the resort town of Black Sea from Sochi this month and presenting the Kremlin as a solution to the problem. – and not, as Western states say, the cause.

China, meanwhile, continued its decade-long economic and diplomatic offensive across Africa, positioning itself as a new peacemaker for long-running conflicts in Ethiopia, Sudan, Somalia and beyond. US officials also suspect Beijing of hoping to open an African military base on the Atlantic to complement its first which overlooks the Indian Ocean in Djibouti.

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Speaking to the US House Armed Services Committee in March, the head of the Pentagon’s Africa Command, Gen. Stephen Townsend, said Equatorial Guinea was the most likely location for such a base, and that the United States States were taking unspecified steps to “deter” such an outcome. The US military has stepped up its training activities on the continent in recent years, with its African Lion exercises this month in Morocco, Tunisia, Senegal and Ghana.

China is also waging its own diplomatic offensive this month, with Wu Peng, its foreign ministry’s Africa chief, on a multi-nation tour of the continent that includes South Africa, Malawi , Tanzania, Burkina Faso and Togo. He will also visit Zambia, where Beijing is negotiating a potential restructuring of more than $6 billion in bilateral debt.

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COMPLEX GEOPOLITICS

The fact that US exercises are taking place in Senegal even as its leader pushes for sanctions to be lifted against Moscow is a reminder of how complex African geopolitics is becoming, with nations engaging with both the West and its enemies potentials. Kenya, for example, remains a strong Western ally and one of the only African countries to take part in a US-led meeting on Ukraine in Ramstein, Germany, in April – but it is also a co-host from the Chinese Horn of Africa summit.

This meeting represents a significant increase in the ambition of China’s diplomatic engagement on the continent, taking it beyond its traditional rhetoric of “non-intervention” to position itself as a negotiator. In February, Beijing appointed veteran diplomat Xue Bing as its envoy to the region, and he has been shuttling between regional capitals ever since.

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Even a week from the end, the true ambition of the summit remains unclear. Beijing clearly feels it needs to get more involved in the region in which it has massive investments, including a rail link from Ethiopia to Djibouti, port and energy interests in Sudan and where some of the current conflicts – particularly in Ethiopia’s Tigray region – are enmeshed in China’s wider geopolitical entanglements in the Middle East and beyond.

China is increasingly supplying weapons to several governments in the region, while its armed Wing Loong drones have also reportedly been used by the United Arab Emirates to support Ethiopia in Tigray, a brutal counter-insurgency campaign that , according to human rights groups, has seen the shelling of target civilians, the blockage of food and medical aid and numerous deaths.

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UKRAINE’S WAR GETS COMPLICATED

With China also the leader of Sudan’s military regime, Washington and its Western allies argue that neither Moscow’s nor Beijing’s influence is good for Africa and its people. In Mali, the United Nations has reported a dramatic rise in the death toll with the arrival this year of Russian “advisers”, filling a void left by the withdrawal of French troops. Russia’s footprint in Africa is much lighter than China’s, but Mali has been a major success for the Kremlin this year and Moscow is also expected to strengthen its influence across the Sahel.

Conflict-related humanitarian and economic crises have now worsened dramatically with disruptions in food deliveries from Russia and Ukraine, two of Africa’s largest suppliers. Western states and Ukraine blame a de facto Russian blockade of Odessa and Russian attacks on Ukrainian infrastructure for stopping millions of tons of food, but Russia has increasingly succeeded in blaming Western sanctions.

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For China, soaring food prices have proven more of a double-edged sword – pushing some of its debtors deeper into financial difficulties already triggered by the pandemic, with Zambia widely seen as the first of what could be several nations struggling with refunds.

As with Sri Lanka across the Indian Ocean, Zambia’s debt negotiations are being closely watched by others, with China fearful of setting a precedent that could force it to bail out several other countries heavily. in debt. Getting more involved in Africa may bring its own new challenges to Moscow and Beijing, but it now appears to be the one they are embracing and the West has yet to find a strategy to respond to them.

*** Peter Apps is a writer on international affairs, globalization, conflict and other issues. He is the founder and executive director of the Project for Study of the 21st Century; PS21, a non-national, non-partisan and non-ideological think tank. Paralyzed by a car accident in a war zone in 2006, he also blogs about his disability and other topics. He was previously a reporter for Reuters and continues to be paid by Thomson Reuters. Since 2016 he has been a member of the British Army Reserve and the UK Labor Party. (Editing by Tomasz Janowski)

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