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When Sir Richard Moore, Britain’s top spy and head of MI6, recently said that China was “absolutely complicit’’ in Russia’s invasion of China, he may have expected surprise from his audience in Prague. Meanwhile, people across a vast swathe of the globe would have smiled wryly and said it was ever thus.
China has long been complicit in Russia’s foreign adventures – and Russia in China’s.
The two powers armed anti-colonial forces side-by-side from the 1960s onwards. It takes particularly naivety to believe they did so for any reason other than to seek power and influence and cost the West money. Ask the fighters who were trained in China, the Soviet Union, or its satellites. They endured horrendous, humiliating and constant racist abuse.
The ties that bind China and Russia didn’t weaken in subsequent years, even as China replaced Russia as the dominant power. In the 21st Century, Russia is – to some extent – a Chinese dependency and by far the junior partner in the developing world’s economic conquest. Though Russian military interference in Africa gets more attention in the British media, it pales into insignificance next to China’s use of commerce and debt to dominate the continent.
In 2020, an Oxford University study revealed that Africa owed $73 billion in public debt and $9 billion in private debt to Chinese lenders – or 12% of total debt, according to the World Bank. That’s to one country. That grew fivefold during the pandemic between 2020 and 2022 to a staggering $696 billion, according to Chatham House.
Neither Russia nor China make their decisions based on good governance or human rights.
Some of Africa’s most oppressive states are ‘beneficiaries’. Oil-rich Equatorial Guinea – arguably one of the world’s least free nations – owes China a fraction under 50% of its GDP. The Central African Republic, torn asunder by war and brutality, is home to Russia’s Wagner mercenaries. On paper, those mercenaries are protecting CAR’s less than democratic President Faustin-Archange Touadéra. In reality, they’re mining, plundering and smuggling gold. They’ve also been accused of committing massacre and rape.
Government-owned and controlled newspapers across Africa hail Russia and China as allies, just as the press in Russia and China lend each other crutches of support – and steadfastly avoid criticising one another. Whatever happens in private, publicly they are joined at the hip, backed by decades of mutual appreciation and praise-singing.
Chinese premier Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin have signed a so-called ‘no-limits’ agreement, binding the two countries closer still. It was signed on 4 February 2022. Less than three weeks later, Russia invaded Ukraine. China has yet to criticise, let alone condemn, the invasion. It has also used its place on the United Nations Security Council to block rulings that would hurt Russia, as its done for the past 50 years.
This isn’t, and never was, a partnership based on shared ideology or even trust. Both may have been communist powers, but their versions of communism were vastly different in all but their brutality. Besides, modern Russia arguably has no ideology beyond its dysfunctional systems of governance. And China’s ‘state capitalism’ is an oxymoron right out of the starting block.
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Rather, it’s a partnership with a single purpose: to frustrate the West’s dominance of international finance and commerce. The reality is that they don’t trust each other, but they do need each other. Pragmatism, not politics, keeps them aligned.
China and the Soviets gave arms to Africa’s guerrilla fighters because Africa is a huge, untapped resource of gold, platinum, chrome, nickel, gems, bauxite, and now, lithium. China already dominates the world’s chrome market and is trying hard to do the same with lithium. Russia tries to compete but can’t match China’s scale, though it is mining gold in the CAR, Sudan and Burkina Faso, and chrome in Madagascar.
With monotonous regularity, diplomats from both countries remind leaders of emerging economies of ‘who their real friends are’, and devote time to sending endless press releases detailing Western perfidy – and in Russia’s case, a surplus of fake news.
The West – including the UK – does little to counter this beyond simply acknowledging, as Richard Moore did in Prague, that it exists and is a problem. Of course, some might argue that agencies like the CIA and Moore’s MI6 are acting, but that we can’t see what they’re doing. That might be true in Ukraine and across Europe, but both agencies have spent decades trying, and failing, across Africa and Asia. The reasons are obvious to Africans and Asians, and incomprehensible to everyone else.
The consequence of all this is grave – especially for Ukraine. China will continue to sit on a public fence, refusing to condemn, and secretly… well, there are no limits to what China will do secretly. The country has a long history of arming Very Bad Men.