We're not in competition: That was the line from both the United States and China as U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken visited Africa this week, but analysts said the trip was indeed aimed at, among other things, countering Beijing's massive influence on the continent.
Blinken denied repeatedly on his three-country tour that this was the case — stressing African agency and autonomy — while China dismissed his comments and accused the U.S. of having a contradictory sub-Saharan Africa policy.
Analysts said the trip was also aimed at trying to counter Moscow’s influence and shore up African support for Washington’s position on the war in Ukraine, after Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov visited the region last month.
Russia came up time and again during Blinken’s meetings with his counterparts in South Africa, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Rwanda, with the secretary of state blaming African food insecurity squarely on President Vladimir Putin and warning countries against Russian’s “proxy force” the Wagner Group. But it was China’s far more influential presence on the continent that was the elephant in the room.
“The continent as a whole has for some years now been seen by the great powers as a place to exert influence,” said Elizabeth Sidiropoulos, head of the South African Institute for International Affairs in Johannesburg, pointing to Russia and China as the U.S.’s main competitors.
“Certainly there is concern from the American side on the growing influence of these two countries on the continent against the backdrop of heightened geopolitical rivalries,” she told VOA.
Throughout his trip, Blinken was at pains to stress the U.S. was not making Africa “choose.”
“Our commitment to a stronger partnership with Africa is not about trying to outdo anyone else. We’ve all heard that narrative, that South Africa and the continent as a whole are the latest playing field in the competition between great powers. That is fundamentally not how we see it,” he said at a news conference in Pretoria.
For her part, South Africa’s outspoken Minister for International Relations Naledi Pandor said she was “glad” the region was not being asked to choose, adding, “African countries that wish to relate to China, let them do so, whatever the particular form of relationships would be.”
“We can’t be made party to conflict between China and the United States of America, and I may say it does cause instability for all of us because it affects the global economic system. … These are two great powers, the two biggest economies in the world. They’ve got to find a way of working together to allow us to grow,” she added.
China’s response to U.S. strategy
At a regular Chinese Foreign Ministry news conference in Beijing during Blinken’s visit, spokesman Wang Wenbin was asked about Blinken’s comments that African countries didn’t have to choose a side.
“It is not important what the U.S. says. What matters is how [the] African people see China-Africa cooperation,” he said, going on to list Chinese-built infrastructure on the continent as tangible results of “practical cooperation.” China is Africa’s largest trading partner.
“The U.S. must not underestimate African countries’ judgment. We believe the African people are sharp-eyed. If the U.S. truly wants to help Africa, then it should take concrete actions, instead of using its Africa strategy as a tool to contain and attack other countries,” Wang said.
While in South Africa, America’s top diplomat unveiled the U.S. Strategy for Sub-Saharan Africa, which addresses a wide range of issues including conflict prevention, trade and climate change. It also advocates for democracy and human rights, whereas China’s investment is no strings attached.
Despite Blinken’s insistence that Washington is not competing with Beijing in Africa, one section of the strategy reads that China sees Africa as “an important arena to challenge the rules-based international order, advance its own narrow commercial and geopolitical interests, undermine transparency and openness, and weaken U.S. relations with [the] African peoples and governments.” The document also mentioned Russia’s interests and influence in Africa.
“The United States is both responding to growing foreign activity and influence in sub-Saharan Africa, as well as engaging in a region undergoing significant transformations to its socioeconomic, political, and security landscape,” stated the White House document.
China has dismissed the strategy outright.
An article in state newspaper The Global Times quoted Chinese analysts as saying the U.S. attitude to Africa was a “contradiction,” on the one hand saying Africa would not be forced to choose, while at the same time “smearing China.”
The Chinese Embassy in Pretoria also criticized the policy, saying: “Africa is not an arena for superpower games but a major stage for international cooperation. It is hoped that the U.S. will abandon its Cold War mentality … and focus more on supporting Africa's urgent development needs, instead of basing its policy on containing other countries' influence in Africa.”
Response from African countries
Pandor, South Africa’s minister for international relations, also criticized the West for sometimes taking a “bullying” attitude to the continent and raised issues of hypocrisy and political interference. But she was not the only official on the continent to push back somewhat against the U.S. during Blinken’s trip.
In Rwanda, Blinken raised the issue of jailed dissident Paul Rusesabagina, expressing concern over his conviction. Foreign Minister Vincent Biruta said, “Rwanda will continue to abide by our rules, and the decisions that were made by our judiciary. And we request our partners to respect Rwanda’s sovereignty, Rwanda’s laws and its institutions.”
Bob Wekesa, head of the African Center for the Study of the United States at Witwatersrand University, said that in terms of how African leaders saw Blinken’s visit, they have learned how to play both sides.
“African countries really have refined the art of playing all these powers, when they meet with U.S. leaders … they seem to say, ‘Yes, we value the relationship with the U.S.’ When they meet with the Chinese, they’re likely to say the same,” he told VOA.
“So, it’s kind of a splintered world in which African leaders look in all direction(s) for whatever they can gain from these powers.”