Russia, China Grapple with Mali's Future

There is a saying, “Once bitten, twice shy”. Russia and China claim to have been bitten once: when the West turned the United Nation’s Security Council resolution 1973 on its head and proceeded to invade Libya. Moscow and Beijing became shy when the West tried to do another Libya, over Syria. When the West mooted successive draft resolutions on Syria, they fought shy. 

Therefore, it comes as surprise that the two countries lost their shyness and allowed themselves to be hoodwinked again on Mali.

Curiously, Moscow and Beijing haven’t yet commented on the French intervention in Mali, which came to light ipso facto and has rapidly morphed through the past week into a concerted Western enterprise in Africa. The mother of all ironies is that the Mali enterprise is in many ways the direct outcome of the West’s intervention in Libya, which Moscow and Beijing condemned as unlawful.

These are early days, and the thinking in Moscow and Beijing could well be to wait and watch the tidings. The Russian and Chinese experts estimate that the French mission is going to be protracted and unproductive.

Meanwhile, Paris made an astounding claim that Moscow “proposed to provide means of transport” for the French troops to be deployed in Mali. Russia has neither confirmed nor denied the French claim, which followed a telephone conversation between the two foreign ministers on Saturday.

To be sure, the Western intervention in Mali has implications for big-power politics and for Russia’s coordination with China on regional issues. To be sure, there are implications for the “Arab Spring” – and in a near term for Syria as well.

France claims it responded to a distress call from the established government in Mali. But then, in March last year Mali had a military coup, which was staged by a US-trained military officer Captain Amadou Haya Sanogo.

Although a lowly captain, Sanogo was a frequent visitor to the US – no fewer than seven times in the past eight years. Sanogo most certainly had powerful foreign backers. Since March, Mali has had so many coups and counter coups that one lost count and all of them by a military that has been armed and trained by the US.

So, France is making a hollow claim regarding a formal invite from a legitimate government. France hasn’t even bothered to seek a UN mandate. The Security Council resolution in last December was specific in mandating an African force led by Africans and expected an expedition circa September 2013 once such a force was trained and equipped by the UN.

However, rhetoric is already obfuscating the hard realities. The British Prime Minister David Cameron said:

What we face is an extremist, Islamist, al-Qaeda-linked terrorist group. It wants to destroy our way of life, it believes in killing as many people as it can. Just as we had to deal with that in Pakistan and in Afghanistan, so the world needs to come together to deal with this threat in North Africa.

This is a global threat and it will require a global response. It will require a response that is about years, even decades, rather than months. It requires a response that is patient and painstaking, that is tough but also intelligent, but above all has an absolutely iron resolve and that is what we will deliver over these coming years.

Total re-conquest

Indeed, the western powers are circling their wagons. The Pentagon disclosed that its C-17 military aircraft have been transferring French troops and equipment and it is considering deploying aerial refueling tankers.

The US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said the US is providing intelligence. Italy is sending two transport aircraft C-130 and one Boeing KC-767A and deputing 15-24 “experts” to Mali. Canada sent a heavy-lift military transport aircraft and the UK will be providing “logistical air assistance”.

The French force is 2,000-strong, and Paris is sending another 500 troops. Defense Minister Le Drian said, “The goal is the total re-conquest of Mali.” He echoed the statement by President Francois Hollande that the French troops would remain in Mali for as long as it takes to defeat terrorism.

Yet, the al-Qaeda bogey is exaggerated. The conflict in Mali is more like a civil war rooted in grievances that are longstanding and can only be tackled by a legitimate and stable government through means of local governance and decentralization and a sustained program of economic development.

A leading expert on the region, Evgueni Korenddyasov, who served as Russia’s ambassador in Mali and is currently heading the Center for Russian-African Relations at the Russian Academy of Sciences in Moscow, said, “The solution can only be found through talks about bigger autonomy and representation for the Tuaregs.”

The regional bodies – African Union and the Economic Community of West African States – actually sought from the UN a comprehensive package that addressed the political crisis in Mali, and the Security Council duly acknowledged the need of a political reconciliation, but the accent overnight shifted to the Western military action.

Doubts arise about the real motivations. True, al-Qaeda groups, which were armed by the Western powers and who served as their foot soldiers during the “regime change” in Libya, have fanned out to neighboring countries. Aside from Algeria and Mali, at least five other countries of West Africa could get affected – Mauritania, Ghana, Niger, Burkina Faso and Nigeria.

However, there is a whole slice of modern history available where the West on the one hand used the forces of radical Islam for geopolitical purposes (for example, Afghanistan, Libya and Syria) while these very same forces at other times provided an alibi for Western military invasions (Afghanistan again).

Mali straddles a vast region in Africa that is rich in oil, gas, gold, copper, diamond and uranium resources. France’s nuclear power plants are supplied from the uranium mines in Niger, which neighbors Mali. No doubt, France has important strategic and economic interests in the region and doubts have been voiced whether its intervention in Mali is anything more than a neocolonial enterprise. The Archbishop of Accra called it a “colonization attempt”.

Suffice to say, the West’s Mali intervention should have triggered a reaction by Russia and China. There could be three main considerations on the Russian mind. First, Russia’s relations with the European powers are already under stress and Moscow would be hesitant to exacerbate them.

Second, Mali is, ironically, Syria in reverse. Russia has serious geopolitical stakes in Syria, while Mali and west and north Africa constitute Europe’s backyard. Interestingly, Paris (which took a strident position on Syria) felt the need to reach out to Moscow on Mali.

From an ideological perspective, too, Russia and the West suddenly find themselves saying the same thing regarding the surge of Islamism in Middle East and North Africa in the wake of the Arab Spring.

Hot for minerals

China, in contrast, has other profound thoughts on its mind – principally, its conflict of interests with the West in Africa. The angst in Beijing is apparent from a scathing criticism in the Global Times on Tuesday of the West’s intervention in Mali. It was written by written by He Wenping, director of African Studies under the Institute of West Asian and African Studies belonging to the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. He wrote:

China has certain interests in Mali through its investment projects. It is not necessarily a bad thing for China as France’s decision to send its troops can stabilize the situation… However, despite all the potential benefits, there is one possible cause for alarm – French forces. Involvement in Mali will provide the case for legalization of a new interventionism in Africa.

France’s direct economic interests in Mali cannot be underestimated… One of the drawbacks of this action is that it brings back memories of the “African gendarmerie” – France’s colonial status.

The big question is whether the coordinated foreign policy moves by Moscow and Beijing would now also embrace the African theatre.

Following the recent Russian-Chinese consultations on strategic security in Beijing on January 9, Russian Security Council secretary Nikolai Patrushev revealed that the two countries are planning to intensify their cooperation on missile defense in response to the US’ growing deployments. Patrushev said:

We are concerned about the US plans to build a global missile defense system, including in the Asia-Pacific region. Our Chinese partners share our concerns and we have agreed to coordinate out actions in that respect.

However, China has far bigger stakes in Africa than Russia. It has surpassed the US and Europe as Africa’s biggest trading partner (US$160 billion) and its businesses invested $15 billion in Africa last year alone. China is hot for minerals in west, north and Central African countries and oil from west Africa. Agricultural products from Chad, Mali, Benin and Burkina Faso supply China’s massive textile industry. West Africa is also a key importer of Chinese products, with Nigeria figuring as the lead consumer (42%).

As the Global Times article signals, Beijing understands perfectly well that the West is embarking on a containment strategy in Africa by simply retaking control of the former colonies where China is making headway. The point is, the West cannot compete with China by matching the latter’s offer of a broader relationship to the African nations.

China’s trans-continental projects are leading the path to the creation of regional economic blocs, which augment the African nations’ capacity to create space vis-a-vis the western powers and negotiate better. In sum, the specter that is haunting the West is not so much al-Qaeda as this inability to match China’s offer of a package deal and a broader relationship with the African states.

The Russian policy in Africa, in comparison, lacks focus and sustained interest. To quote Irina Filatova, a leading Russian expert on Africa, “Russia is interested in developing economic relations with Africa but does not have much to offer. And what it does have to offer, it does not quite know how to.”

Indeed, former president Dmitry Medvedev tried to reverse the trend and even appointed a special envoy on African affairs to inject new vibrancy and content into Russian diplomacy. Medvedev lamented after a visit to Nigeria that Russia was “almost too late” in engaging with Africa.

The Western military thrust into Mali could be a wake-up call for Moscow that nothing is ever too late in life and politics.



M K Bhadrakumar served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for over 29 years, with postings including India’s ambassador to Uzbekistan (1995-1998) and to Turkey (1998-2001).


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