Russia, China, and the World: Focus on Africa

As the international community begins to debate what the next set of global development goals will be, scholars at Indiana University recently discussed what the future of Russian and Chinese involvement in Africa will be.

‘Russia, China, and the World: Focus on Africa’ was a half-day workshop sponsored by IU’s Russian and Eastern European Institute, East Asian Studies Center, and African Studies Program.

The workshop focused on “Chinese and Russian involvements with Africa, exploring the consequences of these involvements for the continent and its peoples and tracing the motivations that have shaped the nature of Russian-African and Chinese-African relations from the Cold War into the present.”

East Asian Studies Center Director Heidi Ross called it a “hugely timely issue.”

The featured speakers were Padraig Carmody of Trinity College, Dublin; Maxim Matusevich, Seton Hall University; and Tang Xiaoyang, Tsinghua University.

Carmody presented research exploring state power and agency in Sino-African relations. He asked the audience to consider: If China is an emergent hegemon in Africa then what kind?

He pointed out that China tends to deploy a “flexible hegemony” on the continent that includes a “no strings attached foreign policy.”

Unlike aid agencies, funders, or nations in the West, China generally does not force governance changes on nations where it becomes involved in development projects. Carmody suggests this creates an environment where African elites retain power in some political interactions, particularly those within their own nations, but that does not necessarily mean they have gained agency.

Many African nations are still dependent upon the outward flow of goods and natural resources to support their economies — Carmody suggests that needs to change before real discussions of African agency on the international stage can begin to take place.

The question is: With no real incentives to change, what might push African elites who have power in the current system to rethink economic development in their nations?

Matusevich’s talk explored the historic relationship of the former Soviet Union to Africa. Russian framings of Africa, he said, were heavily influenced by interactions with African Americans and Afro-Caribbeans.

Russians were seen as “color-blind” by black individuals — “In the minds of a number of educated Africans & African Americans, Russians were a separate case” — they were not seen as inherently racist, Matusevich said.

They were also seen to share the anti-imperialist sentiment of Africans during the era of decolonization.

Russia’s standing in the eyes of some Africans was besmirched by a number of “white elephant” development projects the country funded on the continent. They were projects that required an enormous amount of money, which was often funneled into the pockets of individuals, and manpower but that were sometimes left unfinished.

Those projects began to be viewed poorly in Russia as well as that country worked to recover from its involvement in Afghanistan. The flow of money to the third world was seen as a reason for economic losses within Russia and it helped spur a rise in xenophobia and racism in the country.

Even with Russia’s complicated history on the African continent, Matusevich said Russia is still seen as a viable alternative to the involvement of the United States, but the question now is “What can Russia give us?”

Poster promoting solidarity with anti-imperialist forces in Africa and Latin America.

Poster promoting solidarity with anti-imperialist forces in Africa and Latin America. Image via IISG. (Flickr Creative Commons.)

It’s not clear, Matusevich said, how Russia and Vladimir Putin will answer that question.

Tang’s talk was focused not on theories of power or on the past, but on the experiences of Chinese companies in Africa and their impact on African workers.

China is heavily investing in infrastructure and construction projects across Africa — employing a mix of Chinese and African workers.

Tang pointed out that companies often hire Chinese nationals to fill managerial positions and African workers are hired to provide the hard labor.

So, even though these companies often employ more African workers than Chinese, Africans are paid far less than their Chinese counterparts and have little opportunity for promotion within the country.

Discussant Gardner Bovingdon, Director of Graduate Studies in IU’s Central Eurasian Studies Department, pointed out that Chinese investment on the continent is sometimes seen by African commentators as a kind of neocolonialism — another example of the redeployment of a system developed elsewhere.

He also suggested that China is currently behaving in Africa “like a very large Japan.”

“China’s investment in Africa today looks like Japan’s investment in China” in the past, Bovingdon said. This happening at a time, he said, when China has overtaken Russia on the global stage.

Alex Lichtenstein, the second discussant from IU’s Department of History, reminded the audience of the importance of considering ideology when it comes to discussions of Chinese or Russian influence in Africa.

He asked the audience to consider “What political languages are available [for African elites] with the new hegemon [China]?”

It’s not just about economics, Lichtenstein said, it’s also about beliefs.

He ended his remarks by suggesting that Chinese investment in Africa “looks like enclave capitalism” to him.

The workshop on Russia and China in Africa was just the first of what is expected to be a series of events taking place over the next four years at Indiana University. It was funded in part by the United States Department of Education through its Title VI program.

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