The EU in Africa: Competing With Russia and China for Influence

Written by | Saturday, December 11th, 2021

Over the past decade, Chinese and Russian involvement in Africa has grown significantly, putting both powers in direct competition with the European Union. In recent developments, in the Central African Republic (CAR), Russian mercenaries have lately taken command of at least one EU-trained battalion to help “predate” the mineral-rich country, according to a leaked report. “Today, most deployed FACA units are operating under direct command or supervision by Wagner Group (WG) mercenaries. WG has also established a solid influence on the Central African Armed Forces (FACA) general staff and other government institutions,” says the recent EU foreign service’s report. Andrew Lebovich, policy fellow at European Council on Foreign Affairs (ECFR) says that “since news emerged in September that the government of Mali was negotiating a contract with Russian private military company Wagner Group, France and other European states have made the issue a focus of their diplomatic activity.”
Up to 1,000 Russian mercenaries who are supposed to conduct training, close protection, and counterterrorism operations, would reportedly be paid for by concessions to Wagner Group or related companies on several mines, for an estimated minimum of €10m a month, although the actual cost could be much higher. Lebovich also explains that, “in response, France, Germany, and the EU all made their displeasure plain, issuing strong statements condemning the move. Although European observers and diplomats generally oppose Wagner’s possible presence in Mali, some felt France’s aggressive pushback had been counterproductive. Its response has played into populist appeals to “sovereignty” – against ongoing French influence as the former colonial power.” Malian foreign minister Abdoulaye Diop in Moscow in November asserted Mali’s sovereign right to pursue security partnerships beyond those existing with France and the EU. He even encouraged Russia to pursue mineral extraction and other business opportunities in Mali.
Meanwhile, China’s president Xi Jinping has pledged Africa one billion Covid vaccine doses, with the continent struggling to acquire enough jabs to immunise against the disease. In a speech made to 8th Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (Focac) in Dakar, Senegal, president Xi said his country would donate 600m doses directly, with further 400m doses coming via other sources, such as investments in production sites. China is not only Africa’s leading trading partner but also Africa’s largest creditor. While experts say the relationship needs to be revamped for the benefit of the African people, the ball lies in the African court, they stress. While Xi’s announcement could be seen as part of China’s efforts to burnish its image, German author and researcher Helmut Asche said nothing could be gained from denigrating China’s efforts. “Western donors are clearly falling short of what we should have done,” Asche said in clear reference to the unequal distribution of vaccines between rich and developing countries. “There are clear interests behind the Chinese side, but it also serves African purpose,” Asche told the media.
China has been increasingly irked at western criticism. Beijing’s Foreign Ministry said the government was “amazed at recent comments by French foreign minister Jean-Yves Le Drian about an alleged African disappointment with the Chinese.” The problem lies in the lack of transparency, points out scholar Asche. “Half of the Chinese debt contracted by African countries is so-called hidden debt. Hidden debt means that we do not know the exact terms of repayment, the state of repayment, and so on.” In response to China’s overtures to the continent, the EU has launched what is being described as a roadmap for major investment in infrastructure worldwide. Its Global Gateway strategy, whose aim is to raise $340bn to finance infrastructure, is seen as a challenge to China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). It will focus on transport, health, education, and digital and climate projects around the world, including in Asia, Africa, the Middle East and Latin America. And it is in Africa where the Global Gateway programme will face the major test of the effectiveness in countering Chinese economic influence, says Francesca Ghiretti from the Berlin-based Mercator Institute for China Studies. The European Commission does not mention the African market as a priority objective, “but it’s logical, since it is there that the arrival of Chinese financing has most hurt European companies, which have often lost market share,” says Jean-François Dufour, director of DCA China-Analysis, a consulting firm. The Global Gateway also has an advantage because, “by more or less copying the Chinese way of doing things, the European Union is depriving Beijing of one of its favourite arguments in Africa: declaring that China acts differently from the former European colonial powers,” added Dufour.

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