US geopolitical moves in Africa will lead nowhere

Xin Ping-Correspondent 

Last December, the United States hosted the US-Africa Leaders’ Summit in Washington. 

President Biden said that “Africa’s success is the world’s success”. It seemed America is returning to Africa after four years of Trump’s “America First” isolationist policy. But is the new story believable?

Geopolitics at Play

Months before the summit, the Biden administration came up with the seemingly ambitious US Strategy towards Sub-Saharan Africa. The SSA was expected to do better on the African continent. 

But it delivered little more than rhetoric. Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke in a rare soft tone of not forcing African countries to choose sides at the release of the SSA Strategy during his trip to South Africa in August. 

However, it can hardly hide the fact that the Biden administration’s strategy seeks to “counter harmful activities” by China and Russia, and “to expose and highlight the risks of negative PRC and Russian activities in Africa”, according to a White House fact sheet. 

Even on the summit that should have focused on US-Africa co-operation, Lloyd Austin, US Defence secretary, did not forget to mislead African countries to believe that “China, Russia are ‘destabilising’ Africa.” This disclosure of intent showed how hypocritical the US is!

There is nothing clearer when the October National Security Strategy notes that African countries constitute one of the largest regional voting groups at the UN and admits that Africa’s governments, institutions, and people are a major geopolitical force, one that will play a crucial role. 

It further alleges that US-Africa partnerships must adapt to reflect the important geopolitical role that African nations play globally. The real US attempt is to get Africa’s support for its global strategy.

Just like its return to the Asia-Pacific and its sharpened focus on the Pacific island countries, the US’ “return to Africa” has nothing or little to do with boosting the continent’s development, which entails more input than the US can afford through programs such as the boasted Partnership for Global Infrastructure Investment. 

The US is simply making another attempt to bring the continent on board to contain China and Russia.

A Delicate Moment

After nearly a decade since Obama’s first US-Africa Leaders’ Summit in 2014, President Biden’s Democrat administration has picked it up as an opportunity to counter China and Russia’s “influence” in Africa. 

There is no doubt that this decision has come with a cost. The US and the West suffered a setback at UN General Assembly last March when 26 out of the 54 African countries did not support their resolution to condemn Russia’s “invasion” of Ukraine. Some of those African countries are supposedly allies of democracies, but they turned out to be non-aligned.

Given the relative decline of US power over the past decade, it has become mission impossible for the US to go alone in out-competing China and containing Russia. 

Acknowledging Africa’s geopolitical importance, especially its strategic value in the UN system when it comes to voting, the US rolled out SSA Strategy and the US-Africa Leaders’ Summit in an effort to accomplish its geopolitical goal.

However, the US domestic politics is an apparent constraint to long-term policy planning. Party politics often comes into play, frequently causing disruptions to policy continuity. 

Will another Republican administration throw the SSA Strategy away? How long will this policy be consistently implemented? These are questions yet to stand the test of time, not to mention Africa’s response.

Africa’s Reaction

Despite a series of US moves to draw itself closer to Africa, African countries’ reaction has been not so positive. While “glad” that the US was not forcing Africa to choose, Naledi Pandor, South Africa’s minister of International Relations and Cooperation, reminded Blinken during the latter’s visit that no African country can be “bullied” or threatened. 

“And one thing I definitely dislike is being told ‘either you choose this or else’. When a minister speaks to me like that . . . I definitely will not be bullied in that way, nor would I expect any other African country worth its salt to agree to be treated (that way),” she said.

Africa’s discontent with the US has also been growing publicly. Southern Africa Development Community at its Extraordinary Summit last August expressed its dissatisfaction over the continent’s being targeted for unilateral and punitive measures through the US “Countering Malign Russian Activities in Africa Act” and reaffirmed its principled position of non-Alignment to any conflicts outside the Continent.

African media also questioned US motives. To give an example, Carien du Plessis from SA Business Day once asked Molly Phee, US assistant secretary of State for African Affairs, “Do you think that the Strategy has allowed enough room to recognise that China and Russia have also done things on the continent that can be perceived as positive? Also, as South African Minister of International Relations Naledi Pandor said, the US is not a neutral actor and has itself done a lot of damage on the continent, too. It appears that the US wants to compete with these rather than to see how it can cooperate for the better.”

The US has been trying to find allies across the globe to counter China and Russia. But it has failed to obtain its objectives, especially in the Global South. 

The US President’s Summit with Southeast Asian leaders turned out to be little promised. Worse, his Summit of the Americas revealed fading US influence in its long-time “backyard”. 

Again, the Summit with Africa means no fundamental shift of US policy towards Africa but renewed efforts to involve the continent to out-compete China, contain Russia and maintain US hegemony.

Critics have pointed out that China and Russia have a long history of engagement with Africa, “(But) winning over African countries from China and Russia will be a mission, as the relations of many African countries with those powers are deeply rooted, historically, ideologically and economically.” 

The US must take a lesson from its past failure: having a strategy narrowly coded to just fit its own self-interest can hardly go anywhere, as Africa becomes more independent and non-aligned in an increasingly multipolar world. We are yet to see how the US will fulfil its commitments especially the pledged $55 billion investment in the year or years to come.

Xin Ping is a commentator on international affairs, writing regularly for Xinhua News Agency, Global Times, CGTN and China Daily.

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