international analysis and commentary

Russia and China: aligning with the Global South?

A version of this article is published in Aspenia International 2-2023


The most widespread narrative is the simplest: China and Russia, despite their enormous problems, are continuing to advance in the great Global South in terms of political, economic and military influence. The West is giving ground because it is paying the price for its neo- or post-colonial faults. To what extent is that narrative true? And if it is, what conclusions should we draw from it in order to slow down or even to reverse this trend that is so dangerous for us in the West?

A less vague and superficial analysis of the situation might take its cue from three events in 2023: the “coup d’état epidemic” in Africa; the Russia-Africa conference in St. Petersburg; and the enlargement of the BRICS approved at the bloc’s summit in South Africa. Let’s explore them in that order.

The planisphere turned upside down


THE “COUP D’ÉTAT” EPIDEMIC IN AFRICA. The coup d’état in Gabon in late August 2023 was the eighth consecutive coup in only three years in that part of Africa, namely the continent’s western and central band. It was preceded by coups in Mali, Guinea, Burkina Faso and in Niger, some of which have suffered repeated military coups d’état (thus bringing the total to eight). The political instability to which this “epidemic” points and the serious decline in democracy that it generates have prompted EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell to label the situation “a major problem for Europe.”


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If we are looking for simplifications, we have but to dwell on one aspect: all the countries listed above are former French colonies. Many of them, following the army’s takeover, have denounced their accords with France; in some cases (Mali, Burkina Faso) the contingents of French soldiers stationed on their soil have even been hounded out. So are we looking at a “second death of the French colonial empire in Africa”? Anti-French sentiment certainly plays a part in it. In Niger – shortly after the democratically elected president was ousted – crowds took to the streets singing the military’s praises and shouting “Down with France! Long live Putin!”.

Leveling charges of neocolonialism at Emmanuel Macron and his predecessors is an everyday occurrence. A symbol often used as an example of France’s colonial legacy is the monetary union under the CFA (the African franc), a somewhat bizarre institution, especially as the franc no longer exists even in Paris, having been replaced by the euro over twenty years ago. The CFA is a baroque construction that actually defines two monetary unions (one for central Africa and the other for west Africa), both pegged to the euro by a fixed parity system and underwritten by the Treasury in Paris. There are (vague) similarities with the British Commonwealth. France receives little benefit from the system, yet it pays a political price for it: in the collective imagination of many African countries, the mere existence of a “CFA franc” symbolizes what they perceive to be a legacy of colonialism.

The charges leveled at Paris are justified only in part. For the most part they are specious, inconsistent and in bad faith. The very countries that are hounding out French troops – and possibly replacing them with Russian mercenaries – were only recently seeking Paris’s aid in combating jihadist terrorists and separatist militia groups. The very generals who have seized power – justifying their coups by pointing to their civilian governments’ alleged inability to guarantee order and security – have also spectacularly failed themselves to repress terrorists, jihadists and organized crime. The generals who oust the politicians – accusing them of corruption – are themselves champions of that very corruption.


AFRICA, THE CRISIS IN DEMOCRACY AND SECURITY. Another reason why celebrating the second death of the French empire is a distortion is because the crisis in democracy – and in security – extends beyond French-speaking Africa. English-speaking Zimbabwe held elections of questionable scrupulousness, certainly no more transparent than the victory in Gabon of Ali Bongo (the 64-year-old president ousted by the army comes from a dynasty that has been in power without a break for 56 years: his father Omar Bongo governed the country from 1967 to 2009) who has now been deposed by a coup himself. Sudan, which was never a French colony but a dominion held jointly by Britain and Egypt, is being devastated by a war between two military factions. And a return to disorder and repression is also being seen in Ethiopia, the African country that boasts of never having been colonized (the Ethiopians rightly term the Italian episode “occupation” because they consider it to have been so short-lived and with such a minor impact that it can hardly be called colonization).

A recurrent leitmotif is the crisis in many democratic experiments in Africa. The latest Afrobarometer poll shows that only 38% of Africans are satisfied with the way democracy is working in their country (in those countries that have it). According to the US NGO Freedom House, half of the countries on the continent are “not free” and some 43% are only “partly free”. But we Westerners should handle these opinions with moderation and with a critical spirit when we remember that grassroots opinion in our own countries too is showing signs of falling out of love with the democratic political system.

We should see what is happening in Africa as an emergency that concerns us in several ways. On the one hand it is a “major problem” (to quote Borrell) because this chain of coups d’état is impacting areas of strategic interest to Europe. After all, it is from there that migrants depart for European shores; furthermore, much of Africa is rich in energy and mineral resources. On the other hand, it is also a “major problem” if (when) these coups rest on anti-Western narratives and pave the way for further penetration on the part of China, Russia, and players such as Saudi Arabia and Turkey.

There is an alarming trend behind the latter phenomenon that is common to many African countries. The continent’s educated élites too often tend to associate democracy with the West in a negative sense, i.e. as a symbol of imperialism, neo- or post-colonialism, and exploitation. In so doing, these élites achieve the triple result of discrediting democracy, endorsing the coups d’état and imparting legitimacy upon accords between the military forces seizing power and Beijing or Moscow.

A large part of Africa suffers from a security deficit even more than it does from a deficit of stability or freedom. Democracy cannot survive if it is incapable of offering its citizens a modicum of law and order (an issue underestimated by the Western countries themselves). The military in Gabon – like their counterparts in Niger, Mali and Burkino Faso – are lying when they promise security: even before launching their coup, they enjoyed sweeping powers to maintain order yet failed to do so. But someone is going to have to manage it sooner or later. Economic growth, development, employment, education and health only progress if there is a modicum of security. Europe should develop an alternative proposal – in a framework of respect for human rights – to what Wagner or other mercenary militia groups have to offer.

The fact that the coup d’état in Gabon occurred so shortly after the coup in Niger points to another failure: the failure of ECOWAS, the Economic Community of West African States. Under the leadership of Nigeria (the most important country on the entire continent), ECOWAS had promised/threatened to launch a multinational military operation to reinstate the legitimate civilian government in Niger. But then the organization took fright, especially because resistance to the proposal grew within Nigeria itself. Perhaps it is time for the European Union to pick up the thread.


WANING RUSSIAN INFLUENCE. To what extent can Russia benefit from the West’s difficulties? Less than we think. An alarm bell sounded for Vladimir Putin at the Russia-Africa Summit in St. Petersburg (the president’s own hometown) on July 27-28, 2023. At that summit, heralded with much fanfare in an effort to give the lie to the contention that Russia is internationally isolated, only 16 African heads of state showed up. That is less than half the 43 that attended the first such summit, in Sochi in 2019. Another ten countries downgraded their attendance by sending only their prime ministers to St. Petersburg, but even if we add them to the total, we remain far below the 2019 figure.


Read also: Understanding Russian disinformation strategies inside and outside the country


This points to a rejection of Russian diplomacy’s proactive efforts. Could Western pressure on the African continent’s “non-aligned” countries be starting to take effect? Not really. If we look at the vote censuring Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in the UN – and even more so if our yardstick is the implementation of economic sanctions against Moscow – we can see that most of the governments in the great Global South are simply sitting on the fence and not adopting a stance one way or the other on this particular conflict.

The considerable number of countries with such non-aligned positions has troubled the West which, in turn, has made an effort to explain its side of the story. Visits by US and EU government leaders and ministers have been stepped up in an attempt to shift the balance in favor of the pro-Ukraine coalition. The drop in the number of participants at the Russia-Africa summit appears to show that US and European pressure may have served some purpose, albeit without prompting any spectacular changes of course.

Most of the damage done to Russian influence in Africa has been inflicted by Putin himself. The governments in the Global South are sensitive to Russian and Chinese propaganda faulting the West’s neocolonialist and imperialist habits, but they are also sensitive to data. And the figures show that Russia is only a marginal, almost irrelevant economic partner in Africa. Also, Putin has been piling up unkept promises and this has made inroads into his credibility. At the summit in 2019, he pledged to expand his trade with Africa to more than double the level at which it then stood, increasing it in five years from $16.4 billion to almost $40 billion. However, official news agency TASS figures, gleaned from the Russian Ministry of Foreign Trade, reveal that trade with Africa in 2021 had risen only slightly, to $17.7 billion, chiefly in arms and grain. To see just how modest these figures are, we have only to compare them with the trade between the European Union and Africa (worth $295 billion per annum), between China and Africa ($254 billion per annum), and between the United States and Africa ($83.7 billion per annum).

Given that Russia’s economic clout is negligible, it has made up for its weakness with a military presence. In his capacity as provider of armed security to one or other African government, Putin had offered his protection services primarily through Wagner. But the group’s insubordination in Ukraine, followed by Prigozhin’s elimination, have cast a shadow also over Russia’s real military clout.


CHINA, THE ANTI-G7 AND THE RISE OF INDIA. It would be premature to conclude that Africa is ready to emerge from its non-alignment. Support for the West is not increasing in any visible way. The decline in Russia’s influence may benefit China, Saudi Arabia, the Emirates, India, Turkey or any of the other geopolitical players interested in the stakes involved.

Addressing the BRICS summit in South Africa (via video, to avoid the risk of arrest) in late August 2023, Putin said nothing about Prigozhin and fired the customary broadsides at the West’s imperialism. Between the lines of his speech one could detect an implicit message: I may have lost bad friends but my prestige is intact in the Global South. In other words, Moscow has lost Germany but it may win over Niger. What a bargain!

If there is anyone who can consider the BRICS’ enlargement to be a success, it is Xi Jinping. Coopting Saudi Arabia and Iran (among others) into the emerging nations’ club is a brilliant operation engineered by China’s diplomats, thus allowing it to expand its influence in the Middle East. Apart from anything else, it was China that helped restore diplomatic relations between Riyadh and Tehran a few months earlier. Xi is pursuing his global plan based on the construction of an “anti-G7”, the mainstay of a new, less US-centric world order. He, too, is fueling the nationalism of the Global South’s élites, who love to mask their misgovernment, using the West as a scapegoat and describing it as an “empire of evil”, still guilty of colonialism.

The effectiveness of China’s propaganda, however, is not sufficient to conceal all the things that are not going well in Beijing. The government is censoring youth unemployment figures because the labor market is a disaster. Growth is slowing. Exports are stagnating. Investment capital is fleeing to other shores. Foreign companies’ confidence is ebbing. In veering toward statism and dirigism, Xi has managed to scuttle the “Chinese miracle”.

India may emerge as an alternative model in the BRICS club. Narendra Modi attracts a great deal of criticism in the West for his Hindu nationalist ideology and he certainly is not a champion of tolerance toward minorities, but New Delhi is still a democracy, it has freedom of the press and an independent magistracy, and it has federalism as an antidote to counter any attempt at centralization.


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Its GDP growth in 2023 outstripped that of China. Many Western businesses are moving at least a part of their investments toward India in order to guard against the geopolitical risk of an increasingly hostile China. Modi is a unique figure in the BRICS club on account of his equidistant stance between the two blocs: he has not implemented sanctions against Russia, but at the same time he is bolstering his ties (including military ties) with the United States.


THE BRICS’ INCONSISTENCIES. The pull of authoritarian models is still strong in the Global South. The BRICS’ enlargement is extraordinarily nuanced. There are powers suffering from “imperial nostalgia” (such as the Arabs and the Persians), each with its own aspiration to regional domination and each making opportunistic calculations that may lead to sudden changes in its alliances. This is also the case with Erdogan’s Turkey as it doggedly pursues an ambiguous diplomacy, performing a balancing act between Moscow, Kyiv, Washington and Brussels.

In the West we have alienated certain emerging powers with our lack of energy-related pragmatism (Saudi Arabia) or with our “humanitarian extremism” (witness the freeze on Western investments in Africa). Others, such as Erdogan, practice imperial diplomacy also because their own governments’ social and economic record is so poor. They find reservoirs of real consensus in nationalism, in imperial nostalgia and in anti-Westernism, but that consensus is fragile.

A litmus test to gauge the domestic inconsistencies in the Global South is the currency issue. The BRICS summit – originally an acronym for Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa – has imparted a fresh boost to the idea of a currency for paying international transactions so as to circumvent the dictatorship of the dollar. China has been pushing this idea since the beginning of the present millennium, and even more explicitly since the Wall Street crisis of 2008. The idea’s latest enthusiastic fan is Brazilian president Lula.


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However, at the same August summit in South Africa that once again debated replacing the dollar, the BRICS club opened up to six new members whose number includes Argentina, a country that makes a habit of sovereign bankruptcy and that is famous for its three-figure inflation and its massive, reiterated devaluation. Oddly enough, during the Argentinian election campaign, one of the candidates proposed abandoning the local currency (the peso) in order to adopt the US dollar!

The six countries due to join the emerging nations’ club also include another bankrupt candidate: Egypt survives on bailouts from the International Monetary Fund, whose most important stockholder is the United States. And we may also harbor legitimate reservations regarding the financial solidity of Russia, Ethiopia and South Africa. What credibility can we possibly lend to their attempt to launch an alternative currency to the dollar?


THE STRUGGLE AGAINST THE DICTATORSHIP OF THE DOLLAR. One explanation has to do with the issue of economic sanctions. One of the “imperial” advantages that the United States enjoys is that, in addition to the still dominant role played by the dollar as a reserve currency for the world’s central banks (including China’s), it is difficult to do without the dollar as a compensating currency, i.e. a “transit” currency in transactions between other currencies. For a European, Asian, African or Latin American bank, being sanctioned for performing operations with a country or with an individual who has been blacklisted by the United States means being barred from transactions in dollars on the Swift system (headquartered in Belgium but controlled by the United States). So being barred from the dollar circuit is tantamount to a death sentence, or at the very least to damaging marginalization. This means that sanctions adopted by Washington have an “extraterritorial” quality and need to be implemented willy-nilly by many other countries that may not subscribe to the reason for those sanctions. This really irritates the Chinese, the Russians, and the Iranians too.

China has other reasons for wishing to shake off the supremacy of the dollar. Despite the difficulties that its economy is currently experiencing and despite its stagnating exports, it is still the world’s greatest commercial power. China thus considers it aberrant to have to pay in dollars for Saudi oil, Qatari gas, and Brazilian agricultural produce; or to be paid in dollars when it exports its own goods to India. The trouble is that this dictatorship of the dollar is convenient, and even reassuring. The dollar’s universal nature and its peerless liquidity are not due solely to the fact that it is the currency of what is (for now) the world’s wealthiest economy or (for now) its number one military superpower. It is also due to the fact that the dollar is fully convertible and that it is traded on the world’s most efficient money markets. A credit in dollars, that for some reason is being disputed, will be protected under the legal system of the United States – a rule-of-law state. China’s renminbi is not fully convertible. The Chinese government controls the country’s capital movements, and if a problem arises with Chinese credits, lawcourts take their orders from the Chinese Communist Party.

The fact that people are still talking about replacing the dollar is, more than anything, a confirmation of the anti-American approach being adopted by the BRICS. This fact has been taken on board by an illustrious absentee, Indonesia. Indonesia’s GDP gives it a greater right to join the BRICS club than any other candidate to enlargement except for Saudi Arabia. But it chose not to apply for membership precisely in order not to side with the United States’ adversaries. The game is not over yet.



*A version of this article is published in Aspenia International 2-2023