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Does China’s Position on the Russia-Ukraine War Matter to African Countries?

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Does China’s Position on the Russia-Ukraine War Matter to African Countries?

Analysts and officials in the U.S. and Europe have been sharply critical of China’s stance. But the view from African countries is different.

Does China’s Position on the Russia-Ukraine War Matter to African Countries?

Zhang Jun, Permanent Representative of China to the United Nations, briefs correspondents following Security Council consultations on Aug. 16, 2019, United Nations, New York.

Credit: UN Photo/Evan Schneider

On March 2, 2022, the 11th ever U.N. emergency session closed with a vote adopting non-binding resolution 377A(V), widely known as “Uniting for Peace,” which reaffirmed the sovereignty, independence, unity, and territorial integrity of Ukraine and demanded the immediate, complete, and unconditional withdrawal of all Russian military forces from Ukraine’s territory. According to analysis by Development Reimagined, 51 percent of African countries voted in favor of the resolution, while the rest abstained or were not “in the room.” Eritrea was the only African country that voted against the resolution. While some have suggested this non-unified voice is due to African countries’ varied existing links with Russia – especially mercenaries – another possibility exists: that China also influenced African views, at least in so far as being a large economy that, for instance, abstained from resolution 377A(V).

Did – and does – China’s stance on the Russia-Ukraine war impact Africans? And do African governments find China’s stance confusing or contradictory, as some U.S. and European analysts have complained?

China’s Position, Then and Now

China has so far reiterated its non-interventionist stance, and Chinese newspapers and analysts alike have pointed out the wider background of the conflict – not reflected in the abovementioned U.N. resolution – including; accusing the U.S. government of provoking Russia by holding open the possibility of Ukraine joining NATO; the lack of respect for Russia’s need for security guarantees or Ukrainian neutrality, and the view that Beijing sees the incursion to a degree as an act of self-defense by Russia, even if the wrong choice, meaning China would avoid describing the conflict as an invasion.

The rapidly deteriorating situation in Eastern Europe also means that China is currently walking a diplomatic tightrope by preserving and highlighting the positives of China-Russia relations while managing the frayed but crucial interactions with NATO governments, whose politicians, according to reports, have long since grouped Beijing and Moscow as a new “axis.”

However, China’s policy is not new, and it is a policy that has been demonstrated and equally challenged in its relations with African counterparts. China is known to act when its interests – economic or otherwise – are directly threatened, such as evacuation of its citizens during the 2011 NATO intervention in Libya, or the decision to appoint an envoy to help mediate in Darfur, Sudan in 2007, where China had significant oil interests. The dispute between Egypt and Ethiopia in relation to the newly opened Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam and the Tigray war in Ethiopia have also more recently demonstrated China’s policies when trying to balance what it views as legitimate concerns of its partners, with China choosing to participate in international and regional mediatory processes rather than create new unilateral sticks or processes.

These examples in African countries provide an understanding of what the Chinese government means by avoiding getting involved in “internal affairs,” while calling for reconciliation and dialogue. For example, China was opposed to sanctions against Khartoum during the Sudan war, has supported Zimbabwe and its regional community in condemning U.S. sanctions, and has reiterated the same when it comes to Russia, even though Chinese sanctions could have significant economic consequences. China’s view seems to be that interference is a lose-lose strategy.

The African Dimension

In this context, various countries on the African continent have already witnessed the boundaries of China’s non-intervention policy, and in this way China’s position regarding Russia and Ukraine is recognizable. Chinese participation in various peace missions in Africa also means that African leaders and policymakers are aware of the precise conditions under which Beijing will commit resources that exceed diplomatic rhetoric.

Furthermore, as the U.N. vote indicated, many African governments understand China’s positioning, as 31 percent of African countries also abstained from outright condemnation of Russia’s actions. The reason for this is that non-interference is a widely held principle of most U.N. member states. It was first agreed at the Bandung Conference of 1955, attended by China’s then-Premier Zhou Enlai and the independent or shared-rule African countries at the time, and many others. Thereafter, as African countries gained independence, and in a bid to avoid traps of facing “East” or “West,” many adopted the same principles and established the “Non-Aligned Movement” from 1961 onwards.

The very fact that non-interference is a key tenet of Bandung and NAM, along with the principles of “respect for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all nations” and “commitment to refrain from acts or threats of aggression or the use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any country” illustrates that many countries – including several African countries – do not see these as principles that contradict each other. Hence, many African governments simply do not see China’s current position as contradictory.

Moreover, as was evident from a striking speech made by Kenya’s ambassador in the U.N. Security Council, several African governments see the current crisis as one that has been aggravated by previous breaches of peace and security principles by other powerful economies, but never subjected to assessment within the Council or U.N. emergency session proceedings. For many, it is the lack of response to those past breaches, including in Africa, alongside the current outrage that appears contradictory. Nobody has been held to account for NATO’s invasion of Libya, which worsened security in the Sahel. The United States is still supporting the Saudi offensive against Yemen. Guinea, Mali, and Burkina Faso have recently undergone sweeping changes of government through illegal coups.

Nevertheless, the fact is that war anywhere is undesirable, particularly for African countries, due to the continent’s simultaneous external dependency yet marginalization within global economic affairs. Concerns have been expressed about the impact of reduced grain exports from Ukraine and Russia to African countries – this is despite the fact that as a whole Africa only imported just over 2 percent of agricultural goods from Ukraine and Russia combined. What could be even more impactful for African markets is the fallout from sanctions on Russia and other response measures. Oil prices are already climbing. That said, while some in Africa may lose from this, others may gain. Nigeria, Niger, and Algeria, for instance, recently signed an agreement on a 4,128 km gas pipeline project that will carry gas from Warri, Nigeria to Hassi R’Mei, Algeria, ultimately to European markets.

As Beijing is fast becoming a crucial actor in global politics, its willingness to engage directly in conflict and security issues will continue to be defined by the limits of its adherence to non-interventionist policy. While China’s position will expose the dilemma that exists between principle and pragmatism, Africans are unlikely to be confused or swayed by it, whether or not they agree or disagree with Beijing’s stance.