Relations with Africa, Asia are on brink of collapse — to Russia’s benefit

Relations with Africa, Asia are on brink of collapse — to Russia’s benefit
Опубликовано: Wednesday, 29 March 2023 05:21

Superpowers wish for these nations to pick a side, but this time, they cannot so easily be made to choose. Moscow understands this — the West doesn’t.


Jérémy Lissouba is a member of parliament for the main opposition party in the Republic of Congo. He’s also a deputy judge in the country’s High Court of Justice and an alumnus of the Obama Foundation’s 2018 Africa Leaders Program.

Over a year since the war in Ukraine began, the world remains caught in the middle. And against a backdrop of high energy and food prices, ravaging inflation, social unrest and fears of another global recession, the Western and Russian blocs are once again vying for support from the nations of the developing world.

Leaders like French President Emmanuel Macron, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, Russian Foreign Affairs Minister Sergey Lavrov, Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang, United States Secretary of State Antony Blinken and U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris are just some of the names who have made high-profile visits to Africa in the last 12 months, all largely focused on cooperation and trade.

Yet, the discourse of each has reflected a kind of Cold War redux, with Ukraine as one of its most prominent symptoms.

Each in their own way — and armed with their respective propaganda — these superpowers wish for the nations of Africa and Asia to pick a side. Unlike the previous century, however, this time around these countries cannot so easily be made to choose, nor should they have to. Russia understands this. The West does not.

It’s no secret that Africa’s been reluctant to overtly condemn Russia’s actions in Ukraine, or to participate in Western efforts to sanction and isolate the warring country. Instead, these nations have continued to welcome their long-standing partner with open arms — widely condemning the war, but not Russia.

In Malawi, for instance, Russia’s deliveries of tens of thousands of tons of fertilizer amid global shortages are seen as a heavenly gift by struggling farmers, with the country’s minister of agriculture gratefully describing Russia as “a true friend.” And Moscow’s announced plans to send 260,000 tons of fertilizer to countries across the continent is certain to spread similar sentiments.

In my country of Congo-Brazzaville, the government signed five major cooperation agreements with Russia amid its war with Ukraine, including for the construction of a new oil pipeline and the enhancement of military cooperation.

This charm offensive — prominently led by Lavrov, who has visited South Africa, Eswatini, Angola, Eritrea, Mali, Sudan and Mauritania since January — is nourishing pro-Russian attitudes throughout the continent, and it stands in sharp contrast to the damp squib that was Macron’s recent African adventure.

In what was perhaps the most tone-deaf faux pas of his entire trip, when repeatedly asked during a press conference to condemn Rwanda’s support for M23 rebels causing havoc in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) — a situation closely resembling Russia’s semi-covert support for Donbas separatists in recent years — for all intents and purposes, Macron failed to do so. He even proceeded to lecture the Congolese president on freedom of the press.

Despite the French president’s effusive rhetoric about “new relationships” and “new starts,” his outburst was yet another bitter reminder of Europe’s long-standing paternalistic and dissonant attitude toward Africa — the same attitude whereby decades of European political and military influence on the continent has failed to generate meaningful progress, if not actively undermining efforts.

Africans are wise to this and refuse to take it anymore, as evidenced by growing anti-French sentiment in West Africa. Russia, China and others — though far from being without reproach — are merely seizing the presented opportunities.

France’s President Emmanuel Macron and the DRC’s President Felix Tshisekedi at a press conference in Kinshasa on March 4, 2023 | Ludovic Marin/AFP via Getty Images

Meanwhile, just as the share of European aid going to Africa has declined significantly, similar problems are afoot with the European Union in Asia. Excluding China, the bloc’s share of Southeast Asian merchandise trade fell by over a third in the last two decades, and Western Europe was the destination for less than a tenth of Malaysian, Singaporean, South Korean and Taiwanese exports in 2021.

Here, Russia is again moving fast to fill the gap, adopting China as its main trade partner, and consistently exporting oil and gas to eager Asian buyers. And when Moscow suspended its double taxation treaties with “unfriendly” countries around the world in mid-March, most Southeast Asian nations were exempted from this measure.

Moreover, in the last decade, Russia has also become the region’s largest arms supplier, recently running joint naval exercises with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. Indonesia, the Philippines and Malaysia have all rejected imposing sanctions on Moscow, and Malaysia signed a memorandum of understanding to improve agricultural trade earlier this year.

One cannot fault these nations for cooperating with international partners in the interest of addressing their most urgent societal priorities. Nor can one fault them for taking European discourse on international values and change with a pinch of salt, when this supposed change stems not from the recognition of current flaws but the imposition of emergent global trends.

What lessons can be given about territorial integrity and justice, when the events of 2011 in Libya, and their enduring consequences, remain traumatically fresh in African minds? Or when the posture these countries have taken relative to the war in Ukraine is almost identical to that of Europe toward the conflict in eastern DRC?

What lessons should be drawn from European courts proceeding to seize Malaysian assets and properties worth $15 billion, based on a questionable arbitration authorized by a Spanish arbitrator facing criminal prosecution? And who will really benefit given that this claim on sovereign territories, derived from a mid-19th century agreement between a long-vanished Sultanate and a colonial-era British company, is funded by unknown third-party investors?

Whatever the answer to these questions, it is evident that relations between the old and new worlds will continue to be strained as long as underlying assumptions and beliefs don’t change.

Specifically, we need a change in thinking, and for the West to understand that developing nations are not oblivious to the many contradictions of rhetoric and practice that characterize the world as we know it — whether that be a system of aid and trade that nourishes the imbalances and ills it purports to address; a discourse on international law and values that crumbles in the face of past transgressions and current drives for reform; or even negotiations on climate finance in which urgency stops when Western economic interests begin.

The Western world can only reverse this trajectory by seeking out a genuinely new footing in its relations with the countries of Africa and Asia, challenging its own understanding of what a respectful partnership between equally legitimate nations truly means.

This isn’t about the fact that paying lip service to ideals is struggling to remain convincing, nor is it about entirely conceding these ideals on the altar of economic pragmatism. It’s about accepting a due share of responsibility for the current state of affairs, understanding expectations for the future, being willing to make real concessions, and aligning discourse with dollars and deeds.

In doing so, the Western world will reassure those of us who continue to believe in the promises of the U.N. Charter and Universal Declaration of Human Rights, that these weren’t merely pretenses to maintain hegemony in the face of existential threats — rather, they are an enduring vision for a better world that remains worth fighting for.

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