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The U.S.-Africa summit came to an end, and Washington offered Africa a better strategic option than China

The U.S. Secretary of State meets with Ethiopian Prime Minister and his entourage on December 13, 2022, attending the U.S.-Africa Summit. (Reuters)
The U.S. Secretary of State meets with the Ethiopian Prime Minister and his entourage on December 13, 2022, attending the U.S.-Africa Summit. (Reuters)

WASHINGTON — The United States and nearly 50 African leaders just concluded the three-day “U.S.-Africa Leaders’ Summit” in Washington, D.C., during which the two sides conducted wide-ranging and in-depth discussions on a series of topics such as economy, trade, security, investment, and climate change, and expanded and deepened partnerships with African governments and private organizations. The United States has pledged at least $55 billion in aid to Africa over the next three years and announced that President Joe Biden will embark on a historic visit to Africa next year.

At a time when the United States and China are deeply engaged in competition and games, this summit is considered to be a large-scale international conference of great strategic significance for the United States to revitalize relations with African countries and counter China’s influence. “Our world is changing rapidly, and U.S. engagement in Africa must evolve with it.” The White House said in a statement issued Thursday after the summit.

It was the first major international conference in the United States since the pandemic with more than 40 heads of state, and for several days there was a succession of meetings on a wide range of topics, “many of them at the presidential or ministerial level,” at local universities, think tanks, and business groups. David Shinn, an adjunct professor at the Elliott School of International Affairs at George Washington University, said. All of Washington is now talking about Africa. ”

President Biden called for a broad new partnership between Africa and the United States, signing a memorandum of understanding with the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) Secretariat to expand trade between the two sides and attract investment on the continent, in addition to announcing support for the African Union’s accession to the G20. Once fully implemented, the Agreement establishing the African Continental Free Trade Area will create a continent-wide market of 1.3 billion people and $3.4 trillion, making it the world’s fifth-largest economy, a White House statement said.

“African voices, African leadership, and African innovation are all critical to addressing the most pressing global challenges and realizing our shared vision: a free world, an open, prosperous, and secure world,” President Biden said.

President Biden once again reaffirmed U.S. support for permanent seats for African countries, stressing that the challenges facing the world cannot be solved without African leadership. In his speech at the 77th session of the United Nations General Assembly in September, President Biden proposed that in order to ensure the credibility and effectiveness of the Security Council, the United States supports increasing the number of permanent members of the Security Council and supporting the permanent seats of African countries.

In addition to President Biden’s trip to Africa, the summit also announced that several senior U.S. government officials will also visit southern African countries, including Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, and Commerce Secretary Raimondo. The U.S. Treasury Department announced Friday that Yellen will visit Senegal, Zambia, and South Africa from Jan. 17 to 28.

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“I think this is a sincere effort by the Biden administration to reinvigorate U.S.-Africa relations.” David Shinn, a professor at George Washington University and former U.S. ambassador to Ethiopia, told the media. “From a U.S. foreign policy perspective, in general, I don’t think it (the summit) is extremely prominent because Africa has never been as important to the U.S. as much of the rest of the world.” It’s very important if you look at it from the perspective of my U.S.-Africa relationship. ”

The United States and nearly 50 African leaders just concluded a three-day “U.S.-Africa Leaders’ Summit” in Washington, during which the two sides conducted in-depth discussions on a series of topics such as economy and trade, security, investment, and climate change, greatly expanding and deepening partnerships with African governments and private organizations. David Sheehan, an adjunct professor at George Washington University and former U.S. ambassador to Ethiopia, said this is a sincere effort by the Biden administration to revitalize U.S.-Africa relations.

Chinese shadow

Although the United States views China as its biggest long-term competitor and the only country capable and resourceful to try to replace American influence globally, Biden has avoided mentioning China in multiple speeches over the days, as well as in White House statements.

However, one of the biggest focuses of public opinion in the past few days is that the United States is facing a sharp decline in influence in Africa and a rapid expansion of China’s influence.

“There is a lot of talk in the media about China’s role at the U.S.-Africa leaders’ summit.” Sheehan, who has been a diplomat in Africa for more than 30 years, said. “And the summit itself is doing everything it can, including the Biden administration, to keep China off the agenda and focus on the relationship between the United States and Africa without considering China.” It is true that China’s role cannot be ignored in the context of China’s growing influence, he said, but this summit is not intended for China, and the summit is trying its best to make it a diplomatic activity between the United States and African countries, and in fact the United States and China also have many common interests in Africa.

On the flip side, though, the former U.S. diplomat, who served as a diplomat in Africa for more than 30 years, said he had been attending seminars for days and everyone was talking about China.

Long before the summit, a report by the Institute of Peace said the summit would discuss a wide range of issues, from food security to global health to education. While this is a summit on U.S.-Africa relations, and while China is not on the formal agenda, the U.S.-China rivalry and its impact on Africa will be the backdrop to this major diplomatic event, the report said, “which will certainly be discussed and analyzed in private conversations at the summit.” Thomas P. Sheehy, a researcher on African affairs at the institute, said in the report.

As dozens of African leaders gather in Washington this week, the Biden administration has put forward a less subtle proposal in economic competition with China on the continent: the United States offers better options for African partners.

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Ebenezer Obadare, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, said in an interview with the media that the United States felt pressure in Africa to abandon competition with China and had to respond. Given China’s growing influence in Africa, he said, “the summit may not be primarily about China, but every breakout session is inseparable from China.”

While trying not to talk about China this time, the United States said in its sub-Saharan strategy released in August that the world is keenly aware of Africa’s importance and has prompted countries to expand political, economic, and security engagement with Africa. “China (PRC) views the region as an important arena that challenges the rules-based international order, advances its narrow commercial and geopolitical interests, undermines transparency and openness, and weakens U.S. relations with African people and governments,” the programmatic document said. ”

Analysts say the United States is careful to avoid the summit being interpreted as an attempt by Washington to draw those countries into geopolitical battles and does not want African countries to feel like they need to take sides.

Adams Bodomo, a professor of African studies at the University of Vienna’s Department of African Studies, said in an email to the media that “most of the countries attending the summit want good relations with the United States, but they don’t want to sacrifice relations with countries like China and Russia.” ”

The United States regains influence

The United States hosted its first summit in 2014 under the Obama administration, eight years after that historic and heavyweight diplomatic move. By contrast, China has regularly hosted FOCAC with 53 of the 55 African Union member states every three years since 2000, and for more than two decades, the practice of Chinese foreign ministers making their first annual visits has been to African countries.

In 2017, China built its first overseas military base in Djibouti, located on the west coast of the Gulf of Aden in northeastern Africa. The Defense Department’s report on China’s military capabilities said China may have considered establishing military access bases in 13 countries, including African countries such as Angola, Kenya, Seychelles, and Tanzania.

In the field of trade, in addition to the decline in China-Africa trade volume in 2020 due to the epidemic compared with the previous year, the trade volume between China and African countries has been increasing year by year for many years, maintaining Africa’s largest trading partner for 13 consecutive years since 2009, and the bilateral trade volume hit a record high of US$254 billion last year.

Total trade between China and Africa from 2017 to 2021
Total trade between China and Africa from 2017 to 2021

By comparison, U.S. imports from Africa were $62.4 billion in 2009, compared with nearly $37.6 billion last year. Although the first summit in 2014 was also a sensation at that time, it was far from satisfactory in terms of trade volume, and the trade volume between the two sides did not rise but fell in the past eight years, which was 72.7 billion US dollars that year and fell to 64.3 billion US dollars in 2021.

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By the end of 2021, 52 of the 53 African countries that have diplomatic relations with China and the AU Commission have joined the Belt and Road Initiative, and Chinese companies have added or upgraded more than 10,000 kilometers of railways and roads in Africa, in addition to nearly 1,000 bridges and nearly 100 ports.

“In terms of infrastructure, the United States cannot keep up with China’s massive investment in Africa.” Professor Boaidun of the University of Vienna said.

Still, Sheehan, an adjunct professor at George Washington University, said what is often overlooked is that most of China’s aid is loans, which certainly help local development, but have interest and have to be repaid. The United States, as the largest provider of gratuitous aid to any country on the African continent, has $11 billion in humanitarian aid this year alone, and China does not publish figures for this, but academic estimates are at most about $150 million.

Ambassador Sheehan also pointed out that the difference between the United States and China’s trade with Africa is that most of China’s trade is that China sells goods to Africa, not Africa sells goods to China, and there is a large trade deficit with China, and it is true that US-Africa trade is much smaller, but Africa has a trade surplus with the United States. “It’s a major difference, and when my Chinese friends keep telling me how big China-Africa trade is and how insignificant U.S. trade with Africa is, sometimes I’m really upset, yes, that’s right because you sell so much to Africans, you make money in Africa,” he said. ”

Sheehan stressed that the United States can and is already competing with China.

One of the phenomena that have been of great concern to many observers in Africa in recent years is that democracy in sub-Saharan Africa is going backward. A report by the Council on Foreign Relations says more Africans live under full or partial authoritarianism than for most of the past two decades.

In its 2021 report, the NGO Freedom House identified only eight African countries as “free” countries. In September, Western countries and human rights organizations condemned China on the human rights of Uyghurs in Xinjiang, and most African countries chose to remain silent. When China issued a joint statement slamming its assessment of Xinjiang as “based on false information and drawing erroneous conclusions,” 28 countries signed up to support China, nearly half of which came from African countries such as Burundi, Cameroon, Comoros, Egypt, Equatorial Guinea, Guinea, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Sierra Leone, South Sudan, and Zimbabwe.

“It’s amazing how many of them see China as a model,” said Sheehan, a former ambassador to Burkina Faso and Ethiopia. “Because these African governments are dictatorial, they are also looking to other governments that are also dictatorial.”

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