BRICS: African Countries Face Opportunities and Risks in Alienating China or the US – An Expert Weighs In

Yves here. I am sure readers will have fun with this piece, starting with headline premise that BRICS is primarily about advancing Chinese interests, when African leaders have been recently touting their fondness for Russia based on the Soviet Union having been an anticolonial force that did not demand an economic price for its backing. Note this framing isn’t necessarily the doing of the nominal author of the piece but his interlocutor.

By Christopher Isike, Director, African Centre for the Study of the United States, University of Pretoria. Originally published at The Conversation

President Cyril Ramaphosa explained South Africa’s foreign policy ahead of hosting the 15th Brics summit. GCIS

South Africa recently hosted a Brics summit. The event attracted international attention because the group has recently begun to emerge as a possible rival against US dominance of world affairs. The US and China lie at the heart of this debate. They are the two biggest trading partners of most African countries and both have strategic interests that they are determined to protect. The Conversation Africa’s politics editor, Thabo Leshilo, asked international relations expert Christopher Isike to explain.

How might Brics affect US-African ties?

Altering diplomatic relations between African countries and the US on account of Brics would have its pros and cons for the continent. Some potential gains from alienating the US would include:

  • Increased autonomy for African countries in their foreign policy decisions. They might be able to align more closely with their own interests and priorities without the perceived influence of a major global power.
  • The potential of diversifying partnerships and alliances with other countries or regional blocs that Brics presents. This could lead to more economic, political and security relationships, reducing reliance on any single nation.
  • Stronger regional cooperation and integration. This could unify efforts to address common challenges such as security, infrastructure development and economic growth. Such regional cooperation offers more fertile ground for the African Continental Free Trade Areato thrive.

However, a strained relationship with the US could also come at a cost. Some of the losses would include:

  • Reduced trade opportunities, foreign direct investment and economic aid, potentially leading to economic setbacks for the continent. Beneficiaries of the Africa Growth and Opportunity Act (Agoa), which provides preferential access to the US market, would be hit the hardest.
  • The US has been accused of militarising the continent to advance its own interests. But it plays a significant role in supporting peacekeeping efforts and counterterrorism initiatives in various African regions. Alienation could therefore affect security and stability, leaving a void in terms of resources, expertise, and coordination in these critical areas.
  • Alienating a major global player like the US could also lead to diplomatic isolation for many African countries on the international stage. This could weaken their influence in international organisations, negotiations and decision-making processes.

What if African countries alienated China?

On gains, African countries would be able to diversify their economic and political partnerships by reducing dependence on China. This could lead to increased engagement with other countries and regions, potentially resulting in a more balanced and varied international relations portfolio.

African countries could also enhance their bargaining power in negotiations. This could lead to more favourable terms in trade deals, investment agreements and development projects. Other countries including the US, EU members and Australia might see an opportunity to fill the void.

Some Africans see China’s influence as overly dominant, potentially leading to concerns about sovereignty and autonomy. Alienating China could be seen as a way to assert national interests and prevent over-reliance on a single foreign partner.

That said, African countries can ill afford to alienate China.

China is a major economic partner for many African countries, providing investments, trade opportunities and infrastructure projects. Alienating it could lead to economic setbacks, including reduced trade and foreign direct investment.

Second, China is involved in various infrastructure development projects across Africa. These include roads, railways, ports and energy facilities. A strained relationship with China might hinder the completion of these projects or slow down future infrastructure development, potentially affecting economic growth and connectivity.

Third, China is a significant player in international diplomacy and geopolitics. So, alienating it could lead to reduced influence in global forums where China has a presence. These include the United Nations and various other international organisations. This might limit African countries’ ability to advance their interests on the global stage.

However, it must be noted these gains and losses from alienating either the US or China are speculative and would depend on a wide range of factors. For example, the relationship between African countries and both of these superpowers is multifaceted and complex. Any decision to alienate either of them should involve careful assessment of both the short-term and long-term consequences, and the evolving geopolitical landscape. The trick is for Africa to articulate its own interests and pursue them consistently.

Is there a common African position on the US and China?

African countries have diverse foreign policy priorities and alliances. Their responses to international conflicts can vary widely. Some might choose to align with major powers like the US, China, the European Union or Russia. Others might opt for neutrality or noninterference in the conflicts of other regions.

These strands have played out in the voting patterns on the three UN General Assembly votes to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

It would help African countries to have a common position on the Ukraine war. This should be based on its impact on food and energy security in the continent. They should act consistently in line with that common position. They could also have a common position on Brics instead of leaving it entirely to South Africa to define an African agenda for Brics.

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  1. Mark Gisleson

    Former French colonies have seen the light. Every African leader has to be aware that right now at this moment, they have never had better leverage with the West. Any country not ready to greet China should, if competently run, be engaged in renegotiations with Western govts and corporations. China is a big club to negotiate with.

    China can mess this up, but their current game plan looks like a winner. They’re literally liberating Africa from the colonizers. Quite honestly, I feel like cheering them on.

    Go China! Beat the West!

  2. The Rev Kev

    Macron is really getting upset about all this and claims that BRICS is fracturing the international order. I’m sure that he means the west’s international order when he was talking about this. The one where France buys Africa’s resources for centimes on the Franc-

    ‘The latest BRICS expansion runs the risk of “weakening the West and Europe in particular”, said Macron to French Ambassadors in Paris. “Our international order is being challenged,” he said referring to BRICS using local currencies for trade settlement.’

    The African nations may have qualms about getting too friendly with China which is perhaps why so many Africans display Russian rather than Chinese flags but the message is plain and clear. The age of France ransacking African nations and buying their resources on the cheap is coming to an end. They may still sell them to France – but it will be at a fair market price. Will they make mistakes? Yes. But guess what. It’s their countries and they will eventually work out their own solutions-

    1. Altandmain

      Yep. Macron just wants to keep looting the natural resources of its old colonies and pay the people who live in those nations a pittance.

      He can’t do that anymore. That’s going to be bad for the French economy and cause inflation on top of his insane decisions to join the US in war against Russia.

  3. Thuto

    The author should say the quiet part out loud, and that is the analytical bandwidth of African diplomats is being strained in this way i.e. by asking them to carefully weigh the pros and cons of aligning with either of the two great powers, this is happening because the US insists on coercive foreign policy and dangling the trade carrot via Agoa as bulwarks against the emergence of a multipolar world. The premise of the piece also implies that it’s axiomatic that China follows this “with us or against us” brand of diplomacy on the continent that the US follows as a matter of course, which, as far as I know, it doesn’t. This is not to say China doesn’t pursue its interests on the continent in a way that some may disagree with, but it certainly doesn’t require a seat around the foreign policy table of African countries. Additionally, the articulated position of the Brics bloc emerging from the summit here in Joburg was that diplomatic sovereignty is sacrosanct and no country should have veto power in the foreign policy of another. Contrast this with the US where allies are expected to retire their membership in the “good relations with China” club to be considered loyal and trustworthy. This type of coercive foreign policy will only intensify as the contours of a new multipolar world come into view.

    1. ISL

      I picked up on that quote too.

      “The US has been accused of militarising the continent to advance its own interests. But it plays a significant role in supporting peacekeeping efforts and counterterrorism initiatives in various African regions. Alienation could therefore affect security and stability, leaving a void in terms of resources, expertise, and coordination in these critical areas.”

      Nick Turse has had many articles on how US “anti-terrorism” always increases terrorism (door kicking at night, murdering the wrong people, seems to generate terrorists, which justifies a bigger military footprint and expenditures and profits).

      1. Bsn

        All true. The US created and bankrolled both the Taliban and ISIS. No enemy? No distraction. We have to create an enemy to have an enemy.

        1. ISL

          So how does Christopher Isike not know this? Obviously, he is self-censoring to avoid offending the US in an article assessing the implications of offending the US. I see a massive COI.

  4. Darthbobber

    India having been part of BRICs from Jump Street, it’s hard to see how sucking up to China is a requirement.

    Indeed, the Chinese have differed from the Americans in not making it part of trade or aid packages that they dictate the economic policies or politics of their partners.

    In any case, having more than one option is always beneficial to the small fry. They found themselves with more room for maneuver during the cold war than in the post-Soviet unipolar world

  5. MFB

    Do please remember that the University of Pretoria is the heartland of Afrikaner white supremacist plutocracy. Virtually all “institutes” at South African universities are funded by South African big business, which is predominantly US oriented and anti-China (especially because most South African big businesses are dominated by white people educated under apartheid). Naturally they hire black people who say the things that they want to hear.

    This all borne in mind, I’m an English lecturer, but if I wrote something as vapid, banal and information-poor as this in any journal on a topic I was supposed to know something about I should be ashamed of myself.

    1. Synoia

      Do please remember that the University of Pretoria is the heartland of Afrikaner white supremacist plutocracy…Yes it was, but the 30 years after the collapse of Africana rule, is it still white supremacist?

      The Africanas I knew have retired or died.

  6. Harvey Lord

    Professor Christopher Isike presented a lot of text but never reached a consensus on which path would be the most advantageous. It seems like he’s just beating around the bush. Now, I’m gathering materials for my informative essay on BRICS, and I wanted to learn more facts or expert opinions here. Apparently, I’ll have to rely on more conventional sources like and also search for experts who provide clearer and more persuasive arguments. Of course, this topic falls within the realm of diplomacy, and one cannot make definitive conclusions or statements here.


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