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The Russia-Africa Summit in Sochi Sounded an Awful Lot Like a China-Africa Summit

Russian President Vladimir Putin with Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta at the inaugural Russia-Africa summit in the Black Sea city of Sochi. Photo via the Tass News Agency.

China’s emergence as a major global power over the past quarter-century has not been accompanied by the rise of a Sinocentric worldview. Unlike the U.S. or Europeans in previous eras, where countries in those regions were able to position themselves at the apex of global power for others to emulate, the same cannot be said for China in the early 21st century.

There’s no country that aspires to be like China or to adopt the Chinese political system. Sure, a lot of countries want to emulate China’s economic success and autocrats may borrow some of Beijing’s authoritarian tactics, but there’s no indication that any kind of Sinocentrism is taking root.

But the themes and messages at this year’s Russia-Africa Summit provide some evidence that may be beginning to change, albeit in some subtle, yet important ways.

China, for the most part, has been a non-issue at the summit but the Chinese approach to international relations in Africa is clearly influencing Moscow’s new strategy in Africa and the expectations that African stakeholders have on how to engage the Russians.

Does Any of This Sound Familiar?

  • Win-Win?: President Putin didn’t use China’s well-worn “win-win” phrasing to describe how he wants to structure Russian relations with Africa, but he basically said the same thing: “Our relations are not solely built on ‘struggle politics’, but rather on fostering mutually beneficial partnerships based on common interests.”

“We have something to offer to our African friends. We aim, together with our African partners, to uphold common economic interests and protect them from unilateral sanctions, including by reducing the share of the dollar and switching to other currencies in mutual settlements.” 

Russian President Vladimir Putin

“What is most reassuring about Russia’s entry on the stage is that it has echoed China’s, Japan’s and India’s pledges; that any aid they will give African countries will come with no conditions. No strings attached.”

Editorial in Rwanda’s New Times Newspaper
  • End Dollar Dominance: In a shot against the Trump administration, the Russian president told African leaders he will “protect them from unilateral sanctions,” echoing China’s recent statements on the importance of multilateralism (a bit ironic, of course, given China’s numerous restrictions on free trade and market access). And just as China has been actively pushing the internationalization of the yuan, particularly in Africa where the RMB is now one of Nigeria’s reserve currencies, President Putin said that he too wants “to reduce the share of the dollar and switch to other currencies for mutual settlements.” Clearly, the non-convertible yuan and the Russian ruble are not even close to being strong enough to challenge the dollar’s status as the world’s reserve currency. But what’s interesting here though is the ideological alignment on this issue between the Chinese and the Russians.

Whereas with similar African summits hosted by the U.S., Europeans or Japanese, China loomed as a threat or some kind of challenge that had to be met. But that’s not the case in Sochi. While President Putin did not talk about the Chinese specifically, it’s evident from the key themes and messaging that have emerged so far that the Chinese approach in Africa is regarded by Moscow as something to emulate rather than to confront.

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