“In 1917, President Woodrow Wilson of the US talked of “making the world safe for democracy”. In 2022, Putin and Xi are determined to make the world safe for autocracy.”— Gideon Rachman
“China believes that its rise to great-power status entitles it to a new role in world affairs — one that cannot be reconciled with unquestioned US dominance.” — Yan Xuetong, dean of the school of international relations at Tsinghua University in Beijing
“Nowadays, the Chinese communities are in every African country: The plan is to take some of its population and put them in Africa, while Africans just look on and African leaders hold fruitless meetings.” Muammar Qaddafi
Most of us think that imperialism is dead. What if I told you that we couldn’t be more wrong? Knowing that the whole notion of imperialism has been all but dead in most of our vocabularies, let me start by offering a simple definition by the Cambridge Dictionary. According to the Cambridge Dictionary, Imperialism is the attempt of one country to control another country, especially by political, military and/or economic methods. With that definition in our minds, let’s take a look globally to see where empire building is in full development mode.
For simplicity’s sake, I will leave the United States out of this discussion, not because it is not an empire, but because if there ever was a reluctant empire it would be the United States. Certainly, the US has the world’s largest economy, the largest military budget, the largest military presence, though not by sheer numbers or per capita. The US ranks 3rd globally behind China and India by raw numbers and 7th by per capita. By many metrics the USA would be considered an empire.
So what separates the USA from other Imperial aspirations? I would suggest that it really has no desire to be an empire, partly because it is not even sure what that means, but also because American pragmatism positions the national temperament closer towards isolationism than imperialism. I know this contradicts what you hear on the news and mainstream media, but the USA is a reluctant empire and, if it had its way, it would secure itself inside its ocean protected borders and happily exploit its own natural resources, enormous market, and propensity for an often complex consumeristic value system. Also, the reluctant imperial activities of the US have diminished significantly over the past decade, especially in the milieu that we will be discussing.
So who are these imperial aspirants and how can we see their imperial initiatives and where is it happening? The most clearly displayed form of imperialism globally is currently unfolding on the continent of Africa. There are two high profile players and a few others that may take us by surprise. As always, what I hope that we will all see by the end of this edition is that there is more than meets the eye happening globally, especially in Africa, a continent rich in natural resources, human potential, and political sophistication resting in the midst of a very complicated mélange.
This week we will discuss the Imperial playbook of Russia and China and next week we will discuss two more unlikely imperial aspirants, but two that are no less virulent.
The imperial aspirants in Africa today are Russia, China, al Qaeda, and ISIS. I want to deal with each of these briefly as we uncover their nefarious, somewhat nefarious, and non-nefarious activities, as they have escalated at an extremely rapid pace over the past ten years.
Russian soldiers, both governmental and private, have been extremely busy over the past 10 years. It may feel like they just came to the foreground in Ukraine, but they have been deeply involved in combat operations throughout the world. They have been fighting in Venezuela, Syria, Libya, and 17 different African countries non-stop and now they are neck deep in combat in Ukraine.
Who are these Russian soldiers and why are they in the Middle East, Africa, and South America? Here are a series of talking points that were compiled at the Gatestone Institute from experts around the globe answering some of these questions concerning Russian presence in Africa.
- “Russia relies on a series of asymmetric (and often extralegal) measures for influence—mercenaries, arms-for-resource deals, opaque contracts, election interference, and disinformation.” Joseph Siegle, Director of Research at the Brookings Institution’s Africa Center for Strategic Studies, February 2, 2022.
- Although trade between Russia and African countries has reportedly doubled since 2015, to about $20 billion a year, China is still Africa’s largest trade partner, with trade between China and the continent at $254 billion in 2021. But Russia’s ultimate aims in Africa are the same as China’s: To gain influence by making African countries dependent on its services. While in the case of China investments and infrastructure are offered in exchange for strategic access to vital natural resources and political leverage, in the case of Russia weapons and Russian state-sponsored mercenaries, known as private military companies (PMCs), are offered in return for the same.
- “In its African strategy, the Kremlin is motivated foremost by a desire to thwart U.S. policy objectives, almost irrespective of their substance. Considering Africa ‘one of Russia’s foreign policy priorities,’ Russian President Vladimir Putin also seeks to create African dependencies on Moscow’s military assets….targeting countries that have fragile governments but are often rich in important raw materials, such as oil, gold, diamonds, uranium, and manganese…They also offer to these governments the ability to conduct counterinsurgency and counterterrorism operations unconstrained by human rights responsibilities…In turn, Russia seeks payment in concessions for natural resources, substantial commercial contracts, or access to strategic locations, such as airbases or ports.” — Federica Saini Fasanotti, the Brookings Institution, February 8, 2022.
- The largest and most famous of Russia’s PMCs is the Wagner Group, a paramilitary organization linked to Yevgeny Prigozhin, a close ally of Vladimir Putin. Although ostensibly appearing as a private business, “its management and operations are deeply intertwined with the Russian military and intelligence community” according to the Center for Strategic and International Studies, and should be seen, therefore, as “a proxy organization of the Russian state rather than a private company selling services on the open market.”
- “Russia’s Wagner Group has withdrawn about 1,300 of its mercenaries from Libya to Russia through Syria to participate in the Russian military operation in Ukraine, according to military and strategic expert Colonel Adel Abdel Kafi.” — Middle East Monitor, March 26, 2022.
- “Our competitors clearly see Africa’s rich potential. Russia and China both seek to convert soft and hard power investments into political influence, strategic access, and military advantage.” — General Stephen Townsend, Commander of United States Africa Command, Senate Armed Services Committee on March 15, 2022
How could Russia’s heavy-handed economic influence affect Africa and the rest of the world? While most African countries joined their global counterparts to stand up to Putin’s unprovoked brutality in Ukraine, 17 African countries abstained, with another eight choosing to not participate. One country even voted against the resolution by the UN, Eritrea, a totalitarian dictatorship. There were many reasons for the abstentions, varying from historical ties to Africa’s liberation struggles to the self-interest of regimes currently propped up by Russia to those ideologically committed to nonalignment on the global stage. Russian influence runs deep within the halls of many African nation’s capitals.
- “America cannot ignore Africa. Africa’s challenges, opportunities, and security interests are inseparable from our own…. Our competitors clearly see Africa’s rich potential. Russia and China both seek to convert soft and hard power investments into political influence, strategic access, and military advantage. China’s economic and diplomatic engagements allow it to buttress autocracies and change international norms in a patient effort to claim their second continent.” — General Stephen Townsend, Commander of United States Africa Command, Senate Armed Services Committee, March 15, 2022.
- About 40 out of Africa’s 54 countries participate in China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), the global infrastructure and economic development project that the Chinese Communist Party launched in 2013. BRI aims to build an economic and infrastructure network connecting China with Europe, Africa and beyond, and has already strengthened China’s global influence from East Asia to Europe by making countries worldwide increasingly dependent on China.
- “China is dependent on Africa for imports of fossil fuels and commodities… Beijing has increased its control of African commodities through strategic direct investment in oil fields, mines, and production facilities, as well as through resource-backed loans that call for in-kind payments of commodities. This control threatens the ability of U.S. companies to access key supplies.” — US-China Economic and Security Review Commission, 2020 annual report to Congress.
- In June 2021, in an extremely belated attempt to counter China’s Belt and Road Initiative, the Biden administration together with the G7 launched a new global infrastructure initiative, the Build Back Better World (B3W)…. The initiative, however, comes across as far too little, too late. Between 2007 and 2020, China invested $23 billion in infrastructure projects in Africa, according to the Center for Global Development, a US think tank. That is reportedly “$8 billion more than… the other top eight lenders combined…”
- It will be very near impossible for the US or others to catch up on that, especially with the planned B3W initiative, because that initiative is not focused on much-needed tangible investments. Instead, its four focus areas are climate, health and health security, digital technology, and gender equity and equality.
- “More troubling is B3W’s apparent excision of hard physical infrastructure from its remit… In Africa, which lags all other regions of the world in the availability of paved roads and electricity [and rail], that deficit is set to grow without a massive influx of hard infrastructure investment…” — Gyude Moore, senior policy fellow, Center for Global Development, African Business, February 13, 2022.
- In the absence of a serious coordinated international effort, China will go on to fill that infrastructure gap, as it continues to consolidate its influence in Africa while the US lags behind.
China continues to deepen its engagement in Africa on all levels. Recently it engaged in a flurry of diplomatic activity with African countries. In March alone, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi held bilateral talks with his African counterparts in Algeria, Egypt, The Gambia, Niger, Somalia, Tanzania and Zambia. The talks came only two months after Wang Yi visited Eritrea, Kenya, and Comoros. Also in March, Chinese President Xi Jinping had a phone conversation with South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, during which the two spoke about deepening cooperation between the two countries. Ramaphosa affirmed that he supports China’s policies on Taiwan, Tibet, and other “major issues”.
Africa is important to China for several reasons. “Beijing has long viewed African countries as occupying a central position in its efforts to increase China’s global influence and revise the international order,” the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission wrote in its 2020 Report to Congress.
“Over the last two decades, and especially under General Secretary Xi’s leadership since 2012, Beijing has launched new initiatives to transform Africa into a testing ground for the export of its governance system of state-led economic growth under one-party, authoritarian rule.
“Beijing uses its influence in Africa to gain preferential access to Africa’s natural resources, open up markets for Chinese exports, and enlist African support for Chinese diplomatic priorities on and beyond the continent.”
I started this edition of More than Meets the Eye with a definition of imperialism. According to Beth Cambridge Dictionary, Imperialism is the attempt of one country to control another country, especially by political, military and/or economic methods. Has anything I have shared led you to believe that Russia and China are on two completely different paths to control the countries of Africa? Russia’s approach has led it down a pathway allowing it to control arms sales, prop up conciliatory governments, and provide security through the deployment of easily deniable mercenaries in the form of PMCs. If you remember, I recently wrote about the actions of the Russian PMC, The Wagner Group, in Syria and Libya, in an article entitled Bullies with Guns.
The Chinese have taken a significantly different approach than the Russians. Instead of creating a militant dependency on Russian arms and Russian fighters, the Chinese have elected to create a different kind of dependency by providing cheap infrastructure construction, cheap loans, and access to cheap goods. Where the Russians are trading close to $20 billion a year in Africa, primarily on guns, the Chinese are trading in a multiplicity of other goods to the tune of $254 billion. Western investments and trade have declined yearly in Africa over the past twenty years.
What is the end goal of these two imperial aspirants? The Russian invasion of Ukraine—and the sanctions that it has engendered—is likely to incentivize Russia to seek even more engagement on the African continent in the coming years. It should serve as a reminder to the current and future US administrations that as Russia and China increase their engagement, the US cannot afford to look the other way. America cannot ignore Africa.
Africa’s challenges, opportunities, and security interests are inseparable from our own…” General Townsend said at the March hearing.”Our competitors clearly see Africa’s rich potential. Russia and China both seek to convert soft and hard power investments into political influence, strategic access, and military advantage.”
Both Russia and their somewhat tenuous compatriot are on an Imperial binge. They both are working off a voluminous playbook. Their ultimate goal is to knock the USA off its top spot in economic and military prowess. What will be interesting to see is who is able to keep it together as they get closer to the top. There can only be one king of the hill. Are any of us living under the illusion that Putin would be happy being number two to Chinese President Xi Jinping, or anybody for that matter?
In the absence of a serious coordinated international effort, China will go on to fill that infrastructure gap, as it continues to consolidate its influence in Africa meanwhile the Western nations continue to lag behind.
“Our competitors clearly see Africa’s rich potential. Russia and China both seek to convert soft and hard power investments into political influence, strategic access, and military advantage.” Townsend
A coordinated international effort designed to help African nations fulfill their national agendas and not simply be pawns to larger more potent states such as Russia and China is absolutely necessary if there is any hope for African in the future. Ultimately, what both Russia and China want, is to restructure African national leadership into its image, namely, the image of modern autocracies, led by an elite few who run their countries with little to no rule-of-law or democratic process. If we were to look closely at all the nations where Russia and China have sunk their claws, we would see that all of them are neither democratic nor societies based on rule-of-law.
Africa is in for a long haul, if they allow these semi-socialist autocracies to gain footholds into these nations. So far everything is going according to a major imperial playbook.
Ukraine War and Food Prices… https://5fkox.r.ag.d.sendibm3.com/mk/mr/maeOElc3vpXjkS79OExmk5GsOVQDCiIFQ5baIKHPph1VeBbOkrfMl9UwTVHs6Oe3cFHIULCeYvHiOu4D8b8SDD0iXwUM8ZO-jvXddZRLhwUeXndah_kit9ECVCwkR6_ffMNWjKFdxfA
Britain’s New Top Army General Warns Troops Must Be Prepared To Fight Russia On Battlefield… https://www.globalsecurity.org/wmd/library/news/uk/2022/uk-220619-rferl01.htm?_m=3n%2e002a%2e3357%2ejv0ao0az9m%2e3450
For your comments or questions about any of our digests please feel free to write to me at: firstname.lastname@example.org