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Brics ‘expansion’ jolts Nato to pivot towards Africa

Monday July 31, 2023

L-R: India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi, China's President Xi Jinping, South Africa's President Cyril Ramaphosa, Russia's President Vladimir Putin and Brazil's President Michel Temer pose for a group picture during the 10th Brics summit at the Sandton Convention Centre in Johannesburg, South Africa on July 26, 2018. PHOTO | AFP

This week, a diplomat at the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (Nato), the collective defence alliance between Europe and North America, hinted the organisation will raise its engagement with Africa, ostensibly to ward off the growing influence on the continent of China and Russia.

Russia through the controversial paramilitary company Wagner Group — is now operating in various African states.

The idea is to foster improved bilateral relations on security, anti-terrorism efforts and in other fields of cooperation, all in a “pivot to Africa.”

On Wednesday, Julianne Smith, US Permanent Representative to Nato, told an African media briefing that the defence alliance already had “over 40 countries” outside that mutual defence treaty — across Africa, the Middle East, Latin America, and Asia — with which it has “special partnerships”.

Further, Nato was intent on “looking for ways to strengthen and deepen those partnerships with many of those countries,” and to include more.

“The idea here is to find opportunities to share best practices, to consult on shared security challenges, build defence capacity, develop and improve interoperability, and obviously manage crises as well,” said Smith to a select group of African journalists.

Although avoiding many specifics as to where and what precise role Nato could play with willing African partners, the timing of the special briefing — a highly unusual event — was significant. It came as some African heads of state and government landed in St Petersburg, Russia, for the 2nd Russia-Africa Summit being held there from Thursday.

That summit was called by Russia President Vladimir Putin in hopes of solidifying what African support Russia still has, following its invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, and perhaps to draw more African states into Russia’s sphere of influence.

But that drive has been heavily undermined by Russia’s withdrawal from the Turkey-UN-brokered deal, the Black Sea Grain Initiative, which allowed shipment of much-needed cereal produced in Ukraine to poor countries including in Africa.

Russia invited more than 50 African heads of state, just under a third of them attended in person, signalling partial support for Russia from African states. Since the war, just a number of African countries have often taken stands on the war. Most have often abstained.

Eritrea has been consisted for voting No in defence of Russia, at the UN. Its leader Isaias Afwerki was among those in attendance, and so was Mali’s junta leader Assimi Goïta. His country has profited immensely from Wagner’s controversial operations, including violence, earning his associates sanctions from Washington.

But Russia is also playing in Brics, which will meet in Johannesburg for a summit later in August, where the accession of up to 40 more states, many from Africa, will be considered.

The expansion of Brics has become a top priority for both Moscow and Beijing, and specifically the inclusion of more resource-rich African states is planned as part of a wider effort to establish a counterpoint to the global dominance of Western countries.

The expanded Brics alignment is also intended to be a bulwark against further expansion of Nato, and to provide a core-grouping of nations determined to replace the dollar as the international currency denominating trade in oil, precious metals, plus mineral and other commodities, and affecting almost all international finance and trade.

The Chinese want the yuan to replace the dollar, while Russia and others want their currencies also included in a basket of alternatives to the dollar, which enjoys hegemony of use as the global reserve currency that ensures America’s position as the world leader in finance, trade, and industry, and in effect controlling the lion’s share of the world’s commercial exchanges. There was also talk of having a Brics currency which could yet challenge the dollar if it is pursued.

The reality, however, is that underlying elements make it harder now to pursue alternative currency. Russia is currently heavily sanctioned by the West, since the invasion, which could weigh on its currency, the rouble.

China, through delegated powers to local government structures to incur debts for development purposes, has racked up a huge amount of ‘internal debt’, amounts to the same as sovereign debt.

As of 2020, China's total government debt stood at $47 trillion, equivalent to about 45 percent of its GDP, then. Standard & Poor’s Global Ratings said at the time that Chinese local governments “may” have an additional $5.8 trillion in “off-balance sheet” debt, likely a very conservative estimate by latest assessments.

Following the Covid-19 pandemic, and the very severe lockdowns that China imposed for more than two years in a bid to curtail the outbreak there, the Chinese economy has slowed dramatically to just over 6 percent growth, for the second quarter of 2023.

In effect the Chinese economy is at nearly zero real growth. The yuan as an alternative to the dollar therefore remains a non-starter, especially while the US economy, still growing, remains dominant globally.

In the Brics, China’s $19 trillion GDP (21 percent of the world economy), India’s $3.4 trillion (3.8 percent) Russia’s $2.2 trillion (2.6 percent), South Africa’s $807 billion (just under 1 percent) and Brazil’s $1.9 trillion (just over 2 percent) together contributed just over 30 percent of the world’s total productive output last year, by value.

The EU, on the other hand, has ($17.5 trillion, or 15 percent), US $26 trillion, or 30 percent, Canada $2.1 trillion, or 2.5 percent, and Australia, with a similar GDP to Canada’s, contributed over 55 percent of global production, according to latest figures from 2022.

Even if all of Africa’s nearly $3 trillion GDP in 2022 was included in an expanded Brics, that much-enlarged grouping would still only account for less than a third of global value produced.

On the political front, a much-expanded Brics is supposed to offset EU, American and other Western countries’ collective power.

A super Brics may have substantially more impact in terms of geopolitics, but that is only if it can maintain a united front. Even before more members join it, with what are likely to be some competing long-term national agendas, China and Russia are already at fundamental odds over their respective plans in Africa.

Given what took place earlier this year in the Central African Republic, where several Chinese expat workers were slain by Wagner operatives or their local agents – due to competition over goldmining rights – there is the likelihood that Russia and China will increasingly be competing for extractive resource rights on African soil.

Asked about what Nato intended to do about the Wagner’s planned expansion into Africa, after its pull-out of the Ukraine war, Smith said, “I think you’ve heard US Secretary of State Secretary Antony Blinken talk about the fact that essentially wherever the Wagner Group shows up, death and destruction often follow."

“This is a destabilising force. It has tried to intervene in the internal affairs of multiple countries in Africa."

“And so, the United States is quite concerned, as you might imagine, as are I know many nations around the world, about the presence of Wagner forces (in Africa),” she added.

Implementing sanctions against the group would be supported by bilateral approaches to African states, among others, on “global security challenges including cyber security, hybrid threats, counterterrorism, and climate security”.

Regions specifically mentioned by the Ambassador were the Horn of Africa and Somalia, as well, historically, Sudan, but also in question are West African states where unstable governments, local rebellions, Islamic fundamentalist insurgents and in some cases Wagner, or similar operations, are all vying for control.