Vice President Kamala Harris began her weeklong trip to Africa on March 26. According to Reuters, she will focus on discussing African debt problems, China’s role and the U.S.’ effort to “pitch itself as a better partner than China.”
Driven to outmatch China, the U.S. is now attaching an importance to Africa rarely seen in the past. Just this year, the U.S. has had five senior official visits to Africa. Leading the charge was Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen’s January visit to Senegal, Zambia and South Africa to seek to strengthen economic ties; then, Ambassador to the U.N. Linda Thomas-Greenfield went to Ghana, Mozambique and Kenya to discuss climate issues; First Lady Jill Biden visited Namibia and Kenya to promote women’s empowerment; and U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken visited Ethiopia and Niger seeking to boost cooperation, bolster security and consolidate the local ceasefire agreement in Ethiopia. Now, Harris is visiting Ghana, Tanzania and Zambia.
The world recognizes this series of visits as paving the way for Joe Biden’s trip, during which he will distance himself from Donald Trump’s arrogance and embrace Africa. However, this seemingly positive “transformation” maintains the logic of competition of the past in three ways:
First, the Biden administration is extending to Africa the conflict of security strategies with China and Russia. Blinken’s visit exposed U.S. strategic concerns. Tigray, Ethiopia, has been at constant war, and the resulting escalation of humanitarian disasters put Tigray in the international spotlight. According to the African Union’s special envoy for the Horn of Africa, Olusegun Obasanjo, up to 600,000 people have been killed there as of mid-January. In response to this tragedy, the U.S.’ sole contribution was its usual bludgeoning with the club of economic sanctions, terminating Ethiopian participation in the African Growth and Opportunity Act on the grounds of human rights violations. Ethiopia’s longstanding trade partner, China, has not only provided a large amount of humanitarian assistance to the Tigray region but has also advanced the initiative for peace and development in the Horn of Africa as a key component of Xi Jinping’s global security initiative. Russia is also promoting dialogue between the conflicting parties.
Niger has always been at the forefront of anti-terrorism in the Sahel region. Also, as a former French colony, it had continued to be “protected” by the French military. Recently, due to strong dissatisfaction with France’s anti-terrorism policies, Niger and many African countries expelled the French army, compelling the Macron government to admit its shortcomings and the need to restructure French-African relations. Russia, by contrast, has continuously increased its influence and military assistance to the region. Taken together, Blinken’s choice of African countries to visit reveals U.S. intentions to compete with China and Russia for security agreements.
Second, the U.S. is holding out a carrot while asking Africa to choose sides. Harris will meet with the presidents of Ghana, Tanzania and Zambia and announce public and private sector investments. Zambia, the first African country to default on its sovereign debt under the COVID-19 pandemic, is currently restructuring debt with its creditors, including China. Harris is arriving with carrots on offer, obviously to encourage blaming China and choosing an alliance with the U.S. over China. The New York Times put it bluntly: “Harris looks to deepen relations amid China’s influence.” This is why Washington is launching a “charm offensive.” As the first African American vice president, Harris will visit the Ghanaian Cape Coast Castle, a former slave castle, and give a speech on the brutality of U.S. slavery.
Last year, when Blinken went to Africa to announce the new U.S. Strategy Toward Sub-Saharan Africa, he criticized those African countries that chose not to cut economic ties with Russia and side with the U.S. At the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit at the end of last year, although the word “China” was avoided during agenda-setting, it became a repeatedly used word during the meetings. Containing China’s influence has become the core strategic goal in Africa. This U.S. pressure to pick sides makes deciding how to publicly express diplomatic relationships a thorny problem for African leaders.
Third, the strategic core driving U.S. international competition remains. This series of official visits to Africa not only reflects new weight given to the continent but also reflects the U.S.’ reasserting its presence in economic and security cooperation and pressuring Africa to side with the U.S. in international institutions.
During the Trump administration, Washington ignored an Africa it held in contempt. The Western-centrism and dismissiveness toward Africa by the American political elite showed through Trump’s “shithole countries” rhetoric. However, changes under the Biden administration are not due to U.S. concern with Africa’s development but are rather driven by “competition” with powers outside of Africa.
The world has no illusions as to the geostrategic purposes behind the U.S. and its European allies’ attention to Africa after the outbreak of the conflict between Russia and Ukraine.
Although the U.S. spares no effort to rope in Africa, China-Africa trade volume is five times that of the U.S.-Africa trade, and China’s direct investment is twice that of the U.S. Furthermore, China has not only built large amounts of infrastructure in Africa, such as railways and bridges, but has also created millions of jobs for Africans. Therefore, it is self-evident how Africa should choose between the strong developmental cooperation offered by China and being a brick in the foundation of U.S. grand strategy.
Song Wei is a professor at the School of International Relations and Diplomacy at Beijing Foreign Studies University and the author of “The Stirred Strategy Bottom — Analysis of US Policy toward Sub-Saharan Africa and Its Evaluation after the Cold War (1990-2016).”