Chinese influence weighs on Blinken's visit to Africa

ABUJA, Nigeria – When Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken drove into Nigeria’s capital Abuja from the airport on Thursday, his motorcad...

ABUJA, Nigeria – When Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken drove into Nigeria’s capital Abuja from the airport on Thursday, his motorcade sped past the China Chamber of Commerce building in Nigeria. , a domed structure almost resembling a palace along the highway.

It was a similar story the day before in Nairobi, where Mr Blinken drove to the airport along a giant highway under construction, part of China’s huge Belt and Road initiative, which finances huge infrastructure projects in Asia and Africa. Chinese characters could be seen on tractors and other heavy equipment along the road.

The reality of Washington’s global struggle with Beijing, the organizing principle of President Biden’s foreign policy, overshadowed Mr. Blinken’s first trip to sub-Saharan Africa this week. The first three days of his trip were filled with reminders of Beijing’s growing influence on the mainland, as well as some indicators of declining American influence.

In a speech in Abuja on Friday, Blinken described the Biden administration’s vision for Africa, which he said must include close cooperation to advance democracy, prevent pandemics and slow climate change.

But in a post that both reflected awareness of a regional power play with China and tried to play it down, he also said the United States would no longer treat Africa as just a pawn in global competition. with other powers.

“Too often African countries have been treated as junior partners – or worse – rather than equal partners,” he said. The United States “firmly believes that it is time to stop treating Africa as a geopolitical subject – and to start treating it as the main geopolitical actor that it has become.”

Speaking at a press conference Thursday alongside his Nigerian counterpart, Foreign Minister Geoffrey Onyeama, Blinken said in response to a question about Beijing’s influence that the US commitment “does not concern not China or any other third party “. It is about Africa.

But Mr. Onyeama didn’t seem to mind the idea of ​​competition.

“When it comes to the US-China competition in Africa, I mean, I don’t want to sound almost – well, cynical, almost, about it,” he said. “But sometimes it’s a good thing for you if you’re the attractive bride and everyone gives you wonderful things,” he added.

“So you take what you can from each of them,” he said.

Beijing has made significant infrastructure investments in Nigeria, including $ 7.5 billion since 2018, according to the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington think tank. Last month, China’s ambassador to Nigeria said Beijing plans to open banks in the country soon, a move analysts called an effort to further integrate China into the country’s financial system.

Mr Blinken appeared at least partially to concede Mr Onyeama’s point on beneficial competition, arguing that US investments in the continent’s infrastructure could enable a “race to the top.”

U.S. officials have long feared that Chinese investments in Africa, Asia and Europe will lower standards instead. And Mr Blinken made an implicit reference to the risks of Africa’s growing dependence on hundreds of billions of dollars in Chinese investment, much of it in the form of massive debt.

He insisted that US dollars come with labor, environmental and anti-corruption protections, which are often missing from Chinese projects.

What matters is “not just the resources made available”, he said, “but how those resources are actually used”.

Mr Blinken has taken a lighter approach on the subject of China than his predecessor, Mike Pompeo, who framed his only visit to Africa, in February 2020, around competition with Beijing – urging African nations to “beware authoritarian regimes and their emptiness ”. promises. ”He said the economic partnership with the United States would bring“ real liberation ”.

This fits in with the constant refrain from officials in the Biden administration, also offered to European and Asian countries. They say the United States is not asking other nations to choose sides between Washington and Beijing, an effort to avoid inflammatory rhetoric that could set back delicate efforts of relaxation with China.

Nigerian officials warmly received Mr Blinken and on Thursday he praised the country’s “vibrant democracy”, noting on Friday that his government was planning to attend the world summit on democracy that President Biden is due to host next month.

But several points of friction were also visible.

In several remarks, Mr Blinken called for the responsibility of what a independent panel found last week was the murder by Nigerian army troops of protesters oppose police brutality in Lagos last fall. The Nigerian military has denied firing live ammunition at protesters, who demonstrated by tens of thousands against a government that human rights groups criticized as increasingly repressive and corrupt.

Mr Blinken also implicitly referred to concerns that US military aid to Nigeria, primarily intended to help the government tackle extremist Islamist groups like Boko Haram, has instead been used to commit human rights violations. Mr Blinken said on Thursday that the United States is working to ensure “that the aid we provide is used in a manner that fully respects the human rights of every Nigerian.”

And while Mr Blinken’s Friday speech stressed that Africa can play an important role in slowing climate change, Mr Onyeama warned of the implications for his country, which is a major producer of energy.

“We have noticed that a number of major industrialized countries and financial institutions are now funding gas projects and projects,” he said. “And of course that would be a real blow to countries like ours who really want to see gas as a transitional fuel and have the time to work towards ‘net zero’.”

Mr Onyeama said he hoped the United States would persuade the World Bank and other financial institutions “to take it easy, so to speak, with some of these countries needing this transition period to use up. these fuels “.

Mr Blinken arrived in Abuja after a two-day layover in the Kenyan capital of Nairobi, where he renewed his calls for negotiations to end Ethiopia’s civil war and repeated a US demand that the Sudanese army reverse the coup of October and reinstates the Prime Minister of the country. , Abdalla Hamdok.

But the crises in these two East African countries erupted during Mr Blinken’s visit. At least 15 people in the Sudanese capital, Khartoum, were killed on Wednesday as they demonstrated against the military regime.

On Thursday, Blinken said the United States was “deeply concerned” about the violence and reiterated his call to reinstate Mr. Hamdok, who led a transitional government that followed the popular overthrow of the longtime dictator of the United States. country, Omar al-Bashir, in 2019..

The lack of visible progress in Sudan or Ethiopia suggests that the limits of American diplomatic influence on the continent. But US officials remain hopeful about the prospect of breakthroughs.

A senior State Department official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that during a recent visit to Khartoum by Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Molly Phee, Sudanese generals said that they were open to Mr. Hamdok’s return. But these same generals had left an American envoy in Khartoum with the false impression that they would not take power by force shortly before last month’s coup.

The official also said that Uhuru Kenyatta, the President of Kenya, told Blinken in Nairobi that Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, whom he has met on several occasions, realizes his nation was in danger of falling into a catastrophic violence as a result of his current military campaign against the Tigrayan rebels.

Mr Abiy told Mr Kenyatta he was ready to make compromises that could stop the fighting, according to the official and a second US official who also spoke on condition of anonymity. But the Ethiopian leader has yet to take concrete steps to keep that promise.

Declan Walsh contributed reporting from Nairobi.

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Newsrust - US Top News: Chinese influence weighs on Blinken's visit to Africa
Chinese influence weighs on Blinken's visit to Africa
Newsrust - US Top News
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