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Foreign Policy

Why the Silence on China at Summit?

Dec 29, 2022
  • He Wenping

    Senior Research Fellow, Charhar Institute and West Asia and Africa Studies Institute of the China Academy of Social Sciences

The Second U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit was held in Washington from Dec. 13 to 15 — the second such summit after eight years. (The first was held in August 2014 during President Barack Obama’s second term.) But unlike previous summits and high-end visits in which the U.S. government has always brought up the China factor, this time it seemed to deliberately avoid the subject. The website of Foreign Policy revealed before the summit that the Biden administration’s 30-page agenda for the U.S.-Africa summit did not include the word “China” at all, making it clear that the U.S. was steering clear. So what exactly is the reason for this? The move was likely designed to avoid arousing the resentment of African leaders, who would not like to be seen as geopolitical pawns.

After the outbreak of the Russia-Ukraine conflict in February 2022, the U.S. and Europe quickly accused Russia of aggression. They also worked to diplomatically isolate Russia and imposed all-around sanctions in the UN Security Council, the UN General Assembly and other international multilateral arenas. They desperately pressured a wide range of developing countries in the middle ground, including African countries, to join the U.S.- and NATO-led international united front against Russia.

At the same time, Russia was also actively engaged in diplomatic efforts in African countries in the hope of gaining diplomatic support. As a result, African countries, caught between the U.S. and Russia — and between East and West — don’t want to choose. Africa’s arm is being twisted not only to choose sides in the Russia-Ukraine conflict but to choose between China and the U.S. in the increasingly intense competition of recent years.

For example, the latest edition of the U.S. government’s National Security Strategy, released in October 2022, states that China is the only competitor with both the intent to reshape the international order and, increasingly, the power to do it, thereby posing a serious challenge to U.S. national security. African countries, which suffered when the elephants — the USSR and the U.S. —fought during the Cold War era, do not want to see the rise of a new cold war in which the African grass will suffer again. The determination of African countries not to be used as pawns in a competition between the major powers should have been fully felt by U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken during his two visits to Africa this year.

Second, the U.S. needs to be consistent in its words and actions after adjusting its view of Africa’s status. After Joe Biden took office, he changed Donald Trump’s approach of ignoring or disregarding Africa and strengthened his diplomatic strategy, showing that the Democratic administration under his leadership is interested in the continent. Biden spoke during the AU Summit in February 2021 and met with the Kenyan president in Washington in October that year. Secretary Blinken also unveiled the Biden administration’s new strategy for sub-Saharan Africa during a visit to Africa in August of this year.

These new postures, and a key adjustment in strategy, show that the United States has begun to put down its pride and consider the status and role of Africa. As Blinken said in his speech, Africa is now a critical partner for the United States, and African countries are geostrategic players and key partners on today’s most pressing issues. They have become “a major geopolitical force.” Blinken said the U.S. “will not dictate Africa’s choices, and neither should anyone else” — adding that it stands ready to work with African partners to achieve democracy and elevate Africa’s place in shaping a common future. This publicly stated commitment in August to respect Africa’s self-selection would naturally not be forgotten at the summit in December.

Finally, it should be noted that the U.S. has a long way to go in avoiding talk about China. After all, it is difficult to adjust long-established U.S. diplomatic thinking and diplomatic habits and to coordinate various decision-making departments in the short term. Even during the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit, while the agenda was to avoid talking about China, senior officials of the U.S. Department of Commerce and Pentagon still brought it up on occasion. For example, Deputy Secretary of Commerce Don Graves said at an event hosted by the news outlet Semafor on Dec. 12 that the United States must play catch-up, but it is offering a better option for African countries. U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin said at a round-table dialogue with African leaders on Dec. 13 that the expansion of Chinese and Russian influence in Africa could destabilize the continent.

In fact, as Chinese Ambassador to the United States Qin Gang rightly put it, Africa is a big stage for international cooperation, not a gladiatorial arena for big power competition.

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