WASHINGTON – When Donald Trump looked at Africa, he grossly dismissed its importance and worried African immigrants would never “return to their huts” once they entered the United States.
When Joe Biden looks at Africa, he sees opportunities to curb China’s growing influence in the world.
Biden has sought to move beyond Trump’s dismissive, sometimes confrontational, approach and focus instead on deepening ties with a continent that is home to a rapidly growing population and presents itself as a potentially important geopolitical partner.
“Our eyes are firmly on the future,” Biden said during a short speech. group of African leaders in Washington last year.
But behind these promising speeches lies a more strategic reason for the change in attitude and approach towards US-Africa policy.
“It’s about China,” said Mark Green, a former ambassador to Tanzania and president of the Wilson Center, a nonpartisan think tank that focuses on global affairs. “It’s about great power, about competition.”
Wednesday, Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping met in person For the second time since Biden became president. The four-hour meeting, held on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation conference in San Francisco, comes as the two leaders strive to repair relations deeply strained by a crisis. trade war it started when Trump was in power and by conflicts around technology,China’s aggression against Taiwan and one Chinese spy balloon which flew over the United States earlier this year until a US fighter jet shot it down.
In his opening speech, Biden told Xi that the two leaders must ensure that competition between their countries “does not escalate into conflict.”
“We have to manage this competition responsibly,” Biden said. “This is what the United States wants and this is what we intend to do. I also believe that this is what the world expects from both of us: a frank exchange. »
Xi said that although Sino-U.S. relations have never been easy, “they have continued to move forward amid twists and turns.”
“Planet Earth is big enough for both countries to succeed, and the success of one is an opportunity for the other,” he said.
Neither leader has acknowledged, at least not publicly, the newest arena in the competition between the two economic giants: Africa.
“You’re going to see us a lot”:China has far surpassed the United States as an economic player in Africa. Can Biden change this?
“A newcomer to Africa”
China, the United States’ economic and military rival, has made significant progress in Africa over the past two decades, triggering alarm in the United States and among European countries that fear Beijing’s growing influence around the world .
“In the 2000s, China became the new kid in Africa,” said Amaka Anku, who heads the Africa practice of the Eurasia Group, a global political risk consulting firm based in New York.
China has far surpassed the United States as an economic player in Africa. Trade between China and Africa reached $254 billion in 2021, four times the trade between the United States and Africa, according to the US Institute of Peace, a non-partisan and non-profit organization. lucrative founded by Congress.
China is the largest provider of foreign direct investment to Africa, supporting hundreds of thousands of African jobs – roughly double the level of U.S. foreign direct investment on the continent. China is also by far the largest lender to African countries, often providing loans on much more favorable terms than those offered by U.S. lenders.
Additionally, the Chinese are pushing to establish a military base on the west coast of Africa — a particular concern for the Biden administration, which views China as the most significant threat to U.S. national security.
“This is a pivotal moment for U.S.-Africa relations,” Green said. “And I think it’s important that we continue to build relationships.”
The best way to do that, he said, is for the president to set foot in Africa – “frankly, the sooner the better.”
“All committed to the future of Africa”:Biden announces investments in trade and infrastructure in Africa
Biden said he plans to visit Africa this year, although no plans have been announced and with just six weeks until the end of 2023, a trip there this year seems unlikely. The White House, pressed by reporters on whether Biden plans to keep his promise to visit before the end of the year, said only that it had no update on his travel schedule.
Biden insists his goal is not to contain China, and his administration has played down suggestions that his interest in Africa is linked to a desire to curb Chinese influence there.
Besides economics, analysts say there are multiple reasons why the United States is engaging in Africa, not the least of which is the rise of authoritarianism on the continent – a concern for the United States and other democracies. Africa also has the youngest population in the world. The 10 countries with the lowest median ages are there, according to the Wilson Center.
The African Union, which represents the continent’s 54 countries, is pushing for one or more permanent seats on the U.N. National Security Council, which would bring some of the respect the continent has long sought on the world stage.
Biden has publicly supported not only giving Africa a permanent seat at the United Nations, but also adding the African Union to the Group of 20 nations. South Africa is currently the only African member of the G20, a governmental forum made up of the world’s leading industrial and emerging countries.
“African leaders do not want to be chess pieces”
Trump did not really endear himself to Africans during the four years he was in power. He never visited Africa during his presidency, making him the first president since Ronald Reagan to never set foot on the continent while in office.
Trump’s inflammatory language didn’t help either.
During an Oval Office meeting with lawmakers on immigration, he questioned why the United States would accept more migrants from Haiti and “Shithole countries” in Africa rather than places like Norway. At another meeting a few months earlier, he reportedly lamented that thousands of Haitians who had entered the United States were suffering from AIDS and that Nigerian visitors would “never return to their huts” in Africa. Critics called his remarks derogatory and racist.
Biden sought to repair relations with Africa upon taking office. Last December, the administration hosted the first U.S.-Africa leaders’ summit since 2014. Heads of state from 49 African countries and the African Union were invited to Washington for the opportunity to reconnect with the Biden administration.
To underline its commitment to Africa, the United States pledged to send $55 billion to Africa over the next three years for initiatives to improve health care, mitigate the dangers of climate change, stimulate trade and investment and put in place programs to help women entrepreneurs.
And although Biden hasn’t come yet, first lady Jill Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris, Secretary of State Antony Blinken and other administration officials have visited the continent over the past year, pledging that the United States was serious about deepening ties with Africa.
Whenever Biden makes the trip, African leaders will expect more than promises from the administration, analysts say.
They will look for a signal that the United States views the region as important — and not just as a buffer against China, Green said.
“African leaders do not want to be chess pieces,” he said.
African countries need financing to help fund crucial development initiatives, infrastructure projects and climate change mitigation, said Rama Yade, senior director of the Atlantic Council’s Africa Center.
“Their development needs are $200 billion a year, and this is absolutely essential,” she said. “Six hundred million people suffer from a lack of electricity, not to mention food insecurity, housing, transport and infrastructure problems. These are critical elements. »
African leaders are willing to work closely with China, Yade said, “because the Chinese – they bring money.”
In the past, the US government’s announcement of financing programs for Africa has always been accompanied by the promise of millions of dollars of private sector investment. But private sector financing rarely materializes, Anku said.
For now, “I think what African countries would like to see is ‘show me the money,'” she said.
Although Africa has many important needs, small projects or those that directly benefit communities can sometimes have the most lasting impact, Green said.
Green realized this shortly after he was appointed ambassador to Tanzania and landed in Dar es Salaam to present his credentials. The arrival of a new ambassador is a big deal, with lots of limousines and a ceremony filled with pomp. But what Green remembers most about that day is his taxi driver.
“Before he took off, he turned around and leaned over to me and he said, ‘I was trained by a Peace Corps teacher,’ and he got back behind the wheel,” Green said. “For him, that was the big problem, not the formalities. This was American compassion and action.
“To me,” Green added, “that’s how you make a difference.”
Michael Collins covers the White House. Follow him on Twitter @mcollinsNEWS.