Blinken made clear, in his first official visit to Africa’s most-populous country, that Washington wanted to partner with African countries because it is mutually beneficial rather than a proxy battle to limit Beijing’s influence.
“I want to be clear: the United States doesn’t want to limit your partnerships with other countries. We want to make your partnerships with us even stronger. We don’t want to make you choose. We want to give you choices,” Blinken told an audience at the headquarters of the Economic Community of West African States, a regional economic union based in Abuja, the capital of Nigeria.
The approach is a significant shift from Trump, whose top diplomat, Mike Pompeo, often railed against Chinese-led infrastructure projects as “debt traps” during his three-country trip to Africa in 2020 and criticized telecom projects in Africa by the Chinese firm Huawei.
Trump himself had a strained relationship with the continent, inviting criticism with his reference to the nonexistent African nation of “Nambia,” and broad generalizations about African states as “shithole countries.” His travel ban on several Muslim-majority countries, including some in Africa, inflamed relations with important security partners such as Chad and forced the administration to remove it from the list so as not to jeopardize operations against the extremist group Boko Haram.
In its first 10 months, the Biden administration has sought to reset Washington’s relationship with the continent, providing more than 50 million doses of coronavirus vaccines to 43 African countries and announcing a variety of financial investments in health, education and climate adaptation projects in Africa.
“I know I’m hardly the first U.S. secretary of state to come to Africa and promise different and better engagement,” Blinken said. “I also know that many countries across the region are wary of the strings that come with more engagement, and fear that in a world of sharper rivalries among major powers, countries will be forced to choose.”
Though Blinken’s approach is different, analysts say merely jettisoning a style that many African leaders viewed as lecturing and condescending will not be enough.
“It is not just that Blinken has learned that Africans didn’t appreciate having U.S. engagement in Africa framed as some sort of great power competition with China, it is also a recognition that like it or not, the Chinese and many others are a real presence on the continent and that in many respects the U.S. is playing catch up,” said Cameron Hudson, an Africa expert at the Atlantic Council.
“It’s hard to be preachy when our involvement in so many areas is only episodic and surface level,” he added.
China’s involvement in Africa has exploded in recent years, going from a relatively modest player in the 1990s to becoming Africa’s largest trading partner. By 2019, one in five African infrastructure projects was financed by Beijing and one in three was being built by it.
The trend has alarmed U.S. lawmakers, and experts in Washington have urged the United States to aggressively counter Chinese inroads on the continent.
African leaders and some analysts have countered that Africa’s infrastructure needs are great and rejecting Beijing’s offers would be political and economic malpractice.
In a news conference on Thursday, the foreign minister of Nigeria, which has taken on billions of dollars in debt from China for infrastructure projects including roads, rail and gas pipelines, rejected criticism of the joint ventures.
“We saw a great opportunity with the Chinese,” Foreign Affairs Minister Geoffrey Onyeama said. “They are used to a lot of these huge capital projects and infrastructure projects.”
“We would have gone with anybody providing something at a competitive rate,” he added.
Blinken, when asked about Chinese investments during the news conference, avoided characterizing working with the United States or China as a binary choice.
“When it comes to infrastructure investment, again, this is not about China or anyone else, it is about what we would like to think of as a race to the top when it comes to those investments,” he said.
He said investment from China into the continent was good in principle but warned that African countries should not be saddled with “tremendous debt that they cannot repay,” and noted that workers’ rights and environmental standards shouldn’t be overlooked.
Defenders of the Trump administration’s approach say that its campaign against Chinese infrastructure projects raised awareness about Beijing’s practices in a way that continues to benefit U.S. and African policymakers.
“In many respects, Secretary Blinken does not need to raise the issue because Secretary Pompeo and others raised it and, by doing so, gave the impetus of U.S. attention, both public and private, to questions of transparency and sustainability of deals and especially of the debt involved,” said Peter Pham, Trump’s former special envoy for the Sahel region of Africa.
Pham noted the controversy within the Democratic Republic of the Congo over a $6.2 billion minerals-for-infrastructure project that has come under growing domestic scrutiny, including calls to renegotiate it. “The conversation [over Chinese projects] has been taken up with vigor by Africans themselves,” Pham said.
Christopher Fomunyoh, an Africa expert at the National Democratic Institute, said American infrastructure projects need to succeed on the merits, rather than through rhetorical sloganeering. “You can’t browbeat people into denying the precariousness of their development; rather, an approach that brings them to embrace and value the strength, quality and durability of the American public and private sectors is a winner,” he said.