Top Chinese, Russian and American officials are scrambling this month to visit African nations and pledge their commitment to the world’s fastest-growing continent.
As President Joe Biden prepares for a visit later this year, several of his top officials have recently visited Africa. There, he must balance his desire to secure the continent’s support against Russian aggression and Chinese ambitions with the hope of working to benefit Africa.
Washington says it is not about countering Russian and Chinese ambitions – although the US has expressed dismay at African nations’ reluctance to condemn Russia’s aggression against Ukraine – but about building meaningful relationships in areas such as trade, health, peace and security.
“Our partnership in Africa is not about other countries,” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said in response to a question from VOA. “Our partnership there, as demonstrated by our commitments at the US-Africa Leaders’ Summit, shows that the United States sees African countries as true partners and wants to build relationships based on mutual respect.”
But the continent’s top diplomats say Africa, brutally colonized by European powers for centuries, is nobody’s pawn. And, he made it clear that China understands that.
“Africa refuses to be seen as an arena of influence struggles,” said Moussa Faki, president of the African Union Commission. “We are open to cooperation and partnership with all as long as they respect our principles, our priorities and our interests. The partnership we have with China is built on these principles.”
But as a visiting US official said recently, these great power rivals are acutely aware of each other’s activities, especially as China and Russia flex their muscles globally.
“Many African countries are now plagued by high and unsustainable debt, and this is undeniably a problem and much of it is concerning. [to] Chinese investment in Africa,” said US Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, the latest US official to visit. “So, I think that’s just a factual statement. But this is not for us. It is not a competition with China. We want to deepen our engagement with Africa.
Analysts say these two goals – genuine partnership, but great power competition – are not mutually exclusive.
“We want to check the ambitions of an expanding Russia and an expanding China, but we also want African countries to work together to develop a greater political voice for themselves in international forums and create prosperity for their citizens at home,” said Cameron Hudson. Researcher on Africa at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“So, all these things can be true at the same time. However, we are not accepting that truth. We are accepting only one truth, which is that we want to see Africa develop. And I think it’s more complex. That.”
Analysts estimate that China has spent more than $1 trillion on its global Belt and Road Initiative, which builds infrastructure in developing countries. China has a strict stance of non-interference in the internal affairs of other countries.
During his first trip on the job, China’s new foreign minister dismissed the continent as an ideological battleground during the Cold War.
“No country, no people, has the right to force African countries and their people to take sides,” Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang said. “Africa should be a platform for international cooperation, not an arena of competition between major countries.”
The next top American official to visit in the coming days will be Biden’s ambassador to the United Nations, who previously oversaw the continent at the State Department.
And then, presumably, Biden himself. The White House said in response to a question from VOA this week that it had no concrete plans to announce yet.
Biden has framed the 11-month conflict in Ukraine as a fundamental struggle between democracy and autocracy. With Africa showing clear signs of democratic backsliding, Hudson wonders if Biden will keep those ideals at the fore when he’s on African soil.
“Do they stick to those kinds of fundamental principles, which they say they have, and have a very clear and honest and open dialogue with African states, criticize them when necessary, keep a distance when necessary?” Hudson asked.
“Or will they ignore it or put it on the back burner so that they can build relationships that will benefit Washington at the UN or go down the road politically?”