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Biden’s Africa Blitz to ‘Catch Up’ with Beijing

By Andrew Hammond

Antony Blinken will be warmly welcomed in Africa on Sunday, yet as he begins his first trip there as US secretary of state he will be in no celebratory mood.

The senior US official and former deputy national security adviser is aware of the huge “catch-up” that is needed with China, which has invested vastly more time and capital in the continent. The priority that Beijing places on Africa is illustrated by the fact that its top leadership (the president, premier and foreign minister) have reportedly made around a staggering 80 visits to over 40 different countries there in the past decade alone.

Blinken will visit Kenya, Senegal and the so-called “giant of Africa,” Nigeria. This follows US President Joe Biden’s turbocharging last month of the US “Prosper Africa” initiative, which brings together 17 US government agencies to work on boosting trade and investment on the continent, first launched under Donald Trump but which got off to a slow start.

The Biden team has requested an additional $80 million to bolster the initiative, including to substantially increase two-way trade and investment focused on sectors such as energy and climate, health and digital technology. Washington will also work to bring in diaspora businesses and investors, focusing support on women, as well as on small and medium-sized enterprises.

The administration is framing the initiative as a way to promote shared US-Africa prosperity. Yet it is also designed, in part, to counter China in the region.

For much of the Trump years, US policy toward Africa lacked coherence, clarity and urgency. And this despite key administration figures, including former National Security Adviser John Bolton, publicly acknowledging that China and Russia were “interfering with US military operations and posed a significant threat to US national security interests” on the continent.

Take the example of Blinken’s first stop-off point in Kenya, whose president was one of the few Africa leaders invited to the White House during Trump’s presidency. It is a key US partner in the region amid insecurity and displacement in neighboring countries, including Somalia, Ethiopia and South Sudan. Yet, Kenya’s external debt is largely (around 70 percent) now owed to Beijing, and many large infrastructure projects are being built by Chinese firms.

The vacuum left by Trump’s Africa policy was filled by a host of other countries, both competitors and allies, with growing interest in the continent given its long-term, post-pandemic growth potential. This includes not only China, but also Russia, India, plus the EU and UK.

Economically, Africa is increasingly coming of age and boasts a growing number of key emerging markets. In part, this is because much of the continent has embraced international trade opportunities at the same time as many key industrialized countries have adopted greater protectionism.

It is small wonder that nascent superpower China is showing the greatest interest of all in Africa, aiming to better connect its Belt and Road Initiative with the continent’s development. As well as bespoke trips to individual countries, Beijing is also a frequent host of China-Africa summits.

This is a model that Russian President Vladimir Putin is keen to embrace in order to entrench Moscow’s foothold in the continent, and he held the first Africa-Russia summit in 2019 with plans to hold a second in 2022.  As Moscow seeks to expand its international influence, Africa is a key target for the Russian president for economic and also geopolitical reasons.

Many other key nations, including India, Turkey and top EU states such as France and Germany, are also showering Africa with greater interest, giving countries there more diplomatic options than just Beijing, Moscow and Washington. Under Emmanuel Macron, for instance, Paris is seeking to double down ties with its former colonies, while embedding relations with the continent’s biggest economies, including South Africa and Nigeria. Similarly, German Chancellor Angela Merkel has been a relatively frequent visitor.

And it is in this context that the UK, following its withdrawal from the EU, is also raising its profile in the continent. Prime Minister Boris Johnson hopes to visit during his prime ministership, after hosting the UK-Africa Investment Summit last year.
However, it is not solely through the lens of economics that London views the relationship with Africa. Instead, UK policymakers also highlight the need for greater African security ties with the West to tackle instability across the region, including the threat of Boko Haram, and Al-Shabab militants, which UK troops are playing a part in countering as part of an alliance of countries.

This exemplifies that, while the upsurge of attention to Africa largely reflects economic calculations, broader political considerations are also in play. From Brexit to the great power game underway among Washington, Moscow and Beijing, interest in the continent is only likely to grow in the 2020s, especially if it comes close to fulfilling its significant economic potential.

The views expressed in the article are solely the opinion of the writer. The veracity of any claims made are the responsibility of the author not Wargeyska Jamhuriyadda. 

The article was originally published on Arab News Website.

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