The Changing Foreign Policy Trajectories Of African States

The following is the republication of Andrew Korybko’s speech at the Institute of African Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences given during the 16 May, 2017 round table on “The Evolution of African Countries’ Foreign Policies: New Trends in the Context of Growth of Africa’s Influence in the World” and originally published in the recently released book on “African Countries In Contemporary International Relations: New Frontiers”:

Andrew Korybko Institute of AfricaThe changing foreign policy trajectories of African states is a salient geostrategic topic nowadays, and this article aims to briefly discuss the latest trends involved. The first part addresses the game-changing catalysts which are driving geopolitical decisions on the continent, and then the second one describes the concentration of international interests in Africa. After that, the rest of the article features a region-by-region overview of the changing dynamics in each part of the landmass, which concludes with a general policy proposal for how Russia should respond to these developments.

To begin, the two most significant metanarratives influencing events all across Africa are the US’ War on Terror and China’s One Belt One Road global vision of New Silk Road connectivity.

About the first one, it allows the US and its French ally to entrench power in their existing spheres of influence and also expand past their traditional domains and into new ones, while the second geopolitical driver – China’s One Belt One Road project – has seen the People’s Republic plan a network of connective infrastructure corridors all throughout Africa.

These two factors deserve to be elaborated on a little bit more before continuing.

France, being the former colonizer of a large swath of the continent and still controlling its former domains through the military-economic policy of Françafrique, embarked on Operation Serval in Mali and then expanded it all across the Saharan-Sahelian region during the ongoing successor Operation Barkhane, which the US is also participating in.

As for China, its five main ongoing or already completed projects are the Djibouti-Addis Ababa railway, the LAPSSET Corridor, the Standard Gauge Railway in Kenya, and the Central Corridor and TAZARA in Tanzania. Taken together, it can be seen that China is taking great effort to develop all of Eastern Africa’s infrastructure connectivity for future speedy integration into the planned global New Silk Road network.

China also has the chance to expand some of these projects across the Sahelian-Saharan space, the Congo, and Angola to pioneer multiple transcontinental economic corridors, though these are long-term prospects which have yet to be made official or developed to their full capacity.

Nevertheless, this is important to keep in mind because the geostrategic friction between the US’ War on Terror and China’s New Silk Roads is leading to Hybrid War, which can be described as externally provoked identity conflicts which end up disrupting, controlling, or influencing transnational connective infrastructure projects, or in other words, cynically sabotaging China’s New Silk Roads.

While there’s little that China can do to stop the destabilization process which has already started in the centrally located pivot country of the Congo, it’s comparatively better positioned to deal with any emergent crises in East Africa due to its forthcoming base in Djibouti, which will have the dual function of contributing to the War on Terror and safeguarding the New Silk Roads.

Africa political map

This also shows that China’s focus is more on East Africa, while the US’ is still concentrated mostly in Western Africa and the Françafrique space. However, it’s much too simple to describe Africa as being divided into East and West between China and the US, it’s time to move along to discussing the concentration of international interests all throughout the continent.

The US and China’s interests are cross-continental, but there are also a few other players involved as well, and they happen to focus on certain niches. The EU is most active in North and West Africa, where it’s involved in anti-terrorist activity and improving the economic situation in migrant-originating states.

Japan has a light presence all throughout the continent but is focusing mostly on development, not geopolitics, although it might one day team up with India in order to compete with China. The South Asian giant is China’s rival all across the Indian Ocean Region, and it accordingly is most active along the East African coast, particularly Kenya and Tanzania, though it’s also a major purchaser of energy resources from Nigeria.

Turkey, on the other hand, is another actor which is rarely discussed but still active in Africa. Ankara chooses to concentrate mostly in sub-Saharan Muslim countries after having lost out on its desired post-“Arab Spring” influence in North Africa. Of particular note is the fact that Turkey has a military base in Somalia from which it might project its “Islamic Democracy” soft power model across the region, which in turn could earn it enormous goodwill among the majority-Muslim coastal merchants and thus shape a more friendly business environment for Turkish entrepreneurs.

Lastly, Russia’s strategic footholds in Africa can’t be left out of the analysis, despite Moscow being comparatively behind most of its competitors. Russia has regained enormous influence in every North African country over the past couple of years, and it also has important energy, mining, and military relations with several sub-Saharan states such as South Africa, Angola, and to an extent Nigeria.

Now that the two game-changing factors most directly influencing the foreign policy trajectory of African states– the US’ War on Terror and China’s Silk Roads – have been discussed as well as the geographic concentration of interests that several foreign powers have in the continent, it’s time to proceed along to conducting a region-by-region overview of how this works out in practice.

Starting with North Africa, the southern Mediterranean coast has seen a surge of Russian influence as Moscow has adroitly maneuvered through the chaotic post-“Arab Spring” aftermath in an effort to restore stability in this region. Russia has restored its Soviet-era relationship with Egypt, has positive contacts with both sides in Libya’s civil war, and is now balancing between historic ally Algeria and new partner Morocco.

The wildcard, however, isn’t just what will happen in Libya, but who and what will follow aging Algerian President Bouteflika. The darkest scenarios include a continuation war between Algeria and Morocco, a reboot of the long-dormant Western Saharan conflict, or perhaps another round of prolonged civil unrest in the country, all of which could contribute to a second Immigrant Crisis crashing into Europe.

On a positive note, however, Egypt is the geopolitical jewel of North Africa, and it’s been most successful in applying a foreign policy of multi-alignment in working equally with Russia, China, the US, Saudi Arabia, and Israel, despite some occasional disagreements with some of its partners.

All in all, North Africa is undergoing a period of profound geostrategic reorganization amidst serious structural risks, and the future of this part of the continent surely can’t be taken for granted, especially given Algeria’s unpredictability, Libya’s unrest, and the return of terrorism to Egypt.

Moving westward, this part of Africa mostly falls within the US, France, and the EU’s full-spectrum domain, though Chinese investments are beginning to have an impact on shaping regional policies and Russia has a fledgling military relationship with Nigeria, which is also the scene of an unfolding energy competition between China and India.

In terms of the broader picture, Western Africa is at risk of destabilization because of its multitude of fragile states and the upsurge of terrorism that’s occurred since the beginning of the decade. Boko Haram, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, and even Daesh are present in this region, and armed non-state actors such as the Tuaregs, South American drug cartels, and local rebel forces further complicate the political environment, though conversely creating opportunities for the arms trade and anti-militant cooperation.

Crossing through Central Africa, it’s obvious that this is a black hole of Hybrid War chaos and one which likely isn’t going to improve anytime in the future. The Democratic Republic of the Congo is on the verge of sliding back into all-out war, which is unfortunate from a global viewpoint because it could damage China’s cross-continental New Silk Road connectivity prospects and thus put a limit to structural multipolarity in Africa.

East Africa, however, is an altogether different story, especially regional giant Ethiopia, which has become China’s Silk Road centerpiece in the continent in spite of its identify conflict vulnerabilities. The countries of the East African Community, minus South Sudan of course, are also very impressive, though they’re plagued by multisided intra-organizational rivalries which impede the group’s overall efficiency despite being China’s terminal access point to Africa and the site of several Silk Roads. East Africa will also probably turn into a focal point of competition between China and India in the near future, too.

As for the last part of Africa, the southern region, this might have been thought to be the most stable in times past, but that’s actually a misconception nowadays. South Africa, Zimbabwe, and Mozambique are each threatened by their own political instabilities which could adversely lead to a regional chain reaction depending on the scenario. Therefore, Angola is actually the most stable of the bunch and has proven itself over the years to be a more reliable multipolar anchor for Russia and China than South Africa, though without the same domestic market potential, of course.

Altogether, the foreign policy trajectories of African states are being determined more and more by their position relative to the US’ War on Terror and China’s Silk Roads, though strategic opportunities still exist for lesser players such as Russia to find their own space in this evolving paradigm, especially if it partners with China and others in doing so. What needs to happen, then, is for Russia to enter into a multilateral partnership with China and also Turkey in order to combine its own military advantages with Beijing’s cross-continental economic prowess and Ankara’s soft power attractiveness in the sub-Saharan Muslim countries.

All three states can aid one another if they begin coordinating their activities better, and their overlapping interests could lead to an ultimate win-win synergy for all. Moreover, Russia, China, and Turkey could also work to counter the influence of their American, French, and EU rivals in their respective spheres, though this emerging Tripartite’s attitude towards India would likely be ambiguous due to the contradiction between Moscow’s friendly ties with New Delhi and Beijing’s suspicions of it.

If the three sides hammer out a certain strategic ‘division of labor’, so to speak, then they could be very effective in influencing continental affairs, with Russia being most active in North Africa, China in East Africa, and Turkey in sub-Saharan Muslim Africa. Before it ever gets to this point, however, there needs to be a solid plan that must be initiated by each country’s expert communities.

None of what’s being proposed can begin until experts gather to discuss the idea and introduce it to their respective governmental audiences. If it’s decided that the idea is intriguing enough and realistic, then they’ll have to find a way to incentivize businesses to get involved as well, potentially through an international public-private partnership between Russia, China, and Turkey.

Functional working groups would then have to be established and aim to complete some symbolic and highly publicized joint investments in order to prove that the concept holds weight and that all involved parties would do well to take it more seriously by elevating it to the next level.

The proposals are ambitious and far-sighted, but in closing, experts should give them at least a second thought because they’re a workable starting point for helping Russia and its partners more skillfully navigate the changing geopolitical situation in Africa and promote the development of multipolarity all across the continent.

Participants of the seminar in the Institute of African Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences on “The Evolution of African Countries’ Foreign Policies: New Trends in the Context of Growth of Africa's Influence in the World”, held in May 2017
Participants of the seminar in the Institute of African Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences on “The Evolution of African Countries’ Foreign Policies: New Trends in the Context of Growth of Africa’s Influence in the World”, held in May 2017

DISCLAIMER: The author writes for this publication in a private capacity which is unrepresentative of anyone or any organization except for his own personal views. Nothing written by the author should ever be conflated with the editorial views or official positions of any other media outlet or institution. 

Reposts are welcomed with the reference to ORIENTAL REVIEW.



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