From Nov. 15 to 20, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken made his first trip to Africa. In just five days, he visited three African countries — Kenya, Nigeria and Senegal. Although Blinken’s references to China during this visit were significantly fewer and softer than those of the former secretary, Mike Pompeo, the differences between the Biden and Trump administrations, and between Blinken and Pompeo, in terms of competing with China for influence in Africa, are only a matter of means, not ends.
From the speeches and initiatives Blinken made during the trip, we can see an impact on China-Africa relations in at least three areas.
First, the Biden administration discarded Trump’s disdain for Africa and put a high hat on the continent. This elevation of Africa’s status and role will naturally compete with China and even impact China-Africa relations to some extent. China has long regarded Africa as the continent with the highest concentration of developing countries and an important force in building a fair and just international order.
While the West dismisses Africa as a hopeless continent, China regards it as a land full of promise. It should be said that China’s consistently positive and fully affirmative view of Africa’s international role and development potential forms the political basis of friendly relations.
In recent years, however, Western countries, which are already saddled with old debts of colonialism in Africa, have begun to distance themselves from their past, while at the same time highlighting Africa’s importance in the international arena.
During his visit to Nigeria, Blinken said that “the countries of Africa have been treated as junior partners — or worse — rather than equal ones” and that the Biden administration sees Africa as “a major geopolitical force” that will shape the future of the world. He added: “We can’t achieve our goals around the world without the leadership of African governments, institutions and citizens.”
In response to African countries’ traditional aversion to being pawns and being asked to take sides in the competition between great powers, Blinken said, “The United States doesn’t want to limit your partnerships with other countries. We want to make your partnerships with us even stronger.”
Second, the Biden administration is playing the democracy card in Africa and conducting ideological canvassing to distance African countries from China in terms of political philosophy.
During his visit, Blinken identified the five pillars of the Biden administration’s Africa policy: achieving global health security, addressing the climate crisis, promoting inclusive economic growth, consolidating democracy and promoting peace and security. In terms of content, except for consolidating democracy, the other four pillars are areas that the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) has been emphasizing and in which it has been achieving positive results.
The Biden administration has followed in Trump’s footsteps by playing the ideology card. Blinken announced that the U.S. would host the U.S.-Africa Summit next year and would “deliver tangible benefits that reflect democratic values” in Africa. As the U.S. is planning to convene its Summit for Democracy this year, Blinken invited the three African countries to attend both.
Africa has been navigating the road to multiparty democracy since the end of the Cold War some 30 years ago. Just as it has begun to look east in recent years and draw inspiration and experience from the wisdom and paths of Asian countries, such as China, the United States has once again begun to raise the ideological banners of “democracy” and “freedom” in another attempt to bring Africa into line with its ideals and convictions.
Finally, it is using Western infrastructure investment programs to draw Africa in as a hedge against the influence of China’s Belt and Road Initiative in Africa. The U.S. led the West in unveiling Build Back Better World (B3W), a global engagement plan focused on infrastructure, in July this year. The plan has strong ideological overtones, is open only to “democracies,” is guided by Western values and is allegedly in compliance with the rules-based international system. It is therefore called the Western democracies’ version of an infrastructure plan.
Blinken attacked China’s infrastructure projects in Africa for creating “debt traps,” even as the U.S. itself is busy signing infrastructure investment agreements with Africa. For example, a $2.17 billion development aid package was signed with Nigeria on Nov. 18. A $1 billion infrastructure investment cooperation memorandum was also signed with Senegal.
In addition, Blinken’s trip was timed to take place before FOCAC. His last stop, Senegal, also happens to be the host country of the upcoming Eighth FOCAC Ministerial Conference. The timing of the visit and the choice of countries naturally makes it difficult to avoid associating it with competition against China for influence in Africa.