The United States has promised to treat Africa more fairly as it seeks to revitalise its relationship with the continent and counter Chinese influence.
On a visit to Nigeria on Friday, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said: “The United States firmly believes that it’s time to stop treating Africa as a subject of geopolitics – and start treating it as the major geopolitical player it has become.
“Too many times, the countries of Africa have been treated as junior partners – or worse – rather than equal ones. Too often, we ask our partners to help uphold and defend an international system that they don’t feel fully reflects their needs and aspirations.”
Blinken’s three-nation tour, his first trip to Sub-Saharan Africa, is seen by observers as a response to China’s strong presence in Africa, where it has funded mega infrastructure projects but Washington had criticised Beijing for burdening the countries with unsustainable debt.
China is now Africa’s largest trading partner, with the two-way trade reaching its peak in 2019 at over US$200 billion.
Blinken said the US plans to invest in several projects across Africa through its Build Back Better World initiative (B3W), which aims to pump -US$40 trillion into developing nations by 2035, as a counterbalance to China’s Belt and Road Initiative.
In the Nigerian capital Abuja on Thursday, Blinken said the efforts to re-engage with the continent were “not about China or any other third party” but “about Africa”.
Blinken’s visit began in Kenya on Wednesday, where he announced a new initiative to help more people get vaccinated against Covid-19. He also committed for the first time to join negotiations on a global agreement to combat ocean plastic pollution and launched a project with National Geographic to empower young people across Africa fighting the climate crisis.
Just hours before his arrival in Nigeria, the US announced that the host nation had been removed from a list of countries where there were concerns about religious freedom in what was widely interpreted as an effort to mend relations.
The West African country is the most populous on the continent and China holds immense economic influence there through the financing of mega projects including ports, railways, power dams and highways.
Describing it as the “giant of Africa”, Blinken said on Friday: “Your strengths are undeniable – a dynamic democracy, a robust economy, and a very powerful civil society,” he said, promising to inject US$2.1 billion into the country’s economy, which will go into health, education, agriculture and good governance.
His final destination was Senegal, where he joined four US firms in signing infrastructure deals with a total value of US$1 billion.
The Build Back Better World initiative, where the US will team up with the other Group of Seven countries, has been framed by the White House as a “values-driven, high-standard, transparent and climate-friendly alternative” to the Belt and Road Initiative.
Two weeks ago Washington said it had identified 10 projects for funding during a visit to Ghana and Senegal by deputy national security adviser Daleep Singh.
On Thursday, at a joint briefing with Nigerian Foreign Minister Geoffrey Onyeama, Blinken said: “We want to make sure that as investments are made, countries are not laboured with tremendous debt that they can’t repay. That’s something we won’t do.”
In a veiled swipe at China, he added that the US wants to make sure that “the rights of workers are foremost in our minds, that the environment is protected, that there’s no corruption, that we build together to the highest possible standards”.
But Onyeama responded it was a “question of the best deal that we can strike” and the country’s debts to China were sustainable.
“There was just a huge infrastructure deficit that we’re facing in this country. And we saw a great opportunity with the Chinese,” he said. “We would have gone with anybody else that was providing something at a competitive rate for us, but in many areas they were.”
W Gyude Moore, a senior policy fellow with the Centre for Global Development and a former Liberian public works minister, US policymakers have attempted to warn low income countries against taking Chinese loans, but “it has not been successful, because it was impractical”.
Moore continued: “One is generally better than zero, and so to make such demands without offering an alternative was never a viable strategy. I think B3W and its European cousin are recognition of that”.
Moore also said a big part of Joe Biden’s “America is back” narrative was promoting democracy as the optimal form of government.
“It makes sense that they would choose three core partners who happen to be democracies. Nigeria is such a dominant actor in its region, for better or worse, it will always make sense as a key stop on any such visit,” he said.
“The same holds for Kenya which has been a long-time US security partner in the Horn of Africa. Kenya is even more important now with the deteriorating situation in Ethiopia and Sudan.”
In Nairobi, Blinken warned a group of civic activists that in the last decade or so, the world has faced a “democratic recession – democracies are falling back” and admitted the “United States is hardly immune from these challenges”, following the January 6 attack on the US Capitol by supporters of Donald Trump.
Blinken has also called for an unconditional ceasefire in the Ethiopian conflict and expressed concern about the situation in Sudan following the recent coup.
Seifudein Adem, a professor of global studies at Doshisha University in Kyoto, Japan, said: “The outcome in those countries has significant implications for US interests in the region, at least in the short term,” adding that “China is playing it safe, as it always does, under its precept of non-interference”.
Adem said it was no coincidence that the visit had taken place on the eve of the Forum on China-Africa cooperation in Senegal, and “was designed as a reminder to Africa (and China) that the US is (or will be) back”.
However, Professor Martin Rupiya, innovation and training manager at the African Centre for the Constructive Resolution of Disputes in Durban, South Africa, said there is “very little real strategy against China manifest in visiting the three states, each of whom has now become seriously indebted to China”.
“For some reason, the Biden Administration has woken up to craft a belated Africa policy, whose parameters are still not clear – leaving in place Donald Trump ‘s***hole’ assessment,” he said referring to the former president’s 2018 disparaging remarks about African countries.
But research shows Africans have high regard for both China and the US.
Josephine Appiah-Nyamekye Sanny, from Afrobarometer, which measures the social, political and economic atmosphere in Africa, said a majority of Africans welcome both Chinese and US engagement (63 per cent and 60 per cent, respectively) and very few see it as negative (14 per cent and 13 per cent, respectively).
“Those who feel positively about Chinese influence in their country are also more likely to feel positively about US influence. This suggests that for many Africans, US-China ‘competition’ may not be an either-or proposition, but a win-win,” Nyamekye Sanny said. “So to the extent that B3W addresses real infrastructure needs in Africa, our data suggests that it is likely to be welcome.”
This article originally appeared on the South China Morning Post (www.scmp.com), the leading news media reporting on China and Asia.