During a recent trip to several African countries, Secretary of State Antony Blinken offered some comments on how the Biden administration sees the role of the United States and China in Africa, emphasizing the positive impact the United States hopes to have on Africa and deemphasizing the idea of competition between the United States and China.
In a November 19 speech entitled "The United States and Africa: Building a 21st Century Partnership," made to the Economic Community of West African States in Nigeria, Blinken brought up issues related to a U.S.-China rivalry in Africa, noting 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." Addressing these concerns, he said:
So 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.
While he did not mention China in his speech, the previous day, during a press conference in Nigeria, he offered more details on how he sees U.S.-China competition. He was asked questions about this competition, and also about rare earth minerals in particular:
Mr. Secretary, I wanted to ask about the competition in Africa between the U.S. and China. How would you characterize the U.S. approach versus the Chinese approach and how would you compete with these no-strings-attached loans that China seems to hand out around the continent? Would you advise Nigeria, who is heavily reliant on Chinese money, to perhaps be less reliant on that?
And then how much of a priority is it for the administration to secure resources in Africa, particularly rare earth minerals, which are going to become so important in the future when it comes to battery technology and the rest? China is laser focused on those and some say they are reaping the benefits.
In response, he deemphasized the competition with China aspect and talked about the positive investments the Biden administration is hoping to make in Africa:
Look, first and foremost, our engagement in Africa, with Africa – our partnership with Nigeria, with many other countries – is not about China or any other third party. It’s about Africa. It’s about working together to make the investments in Africa, make the investments in its people, and ultimately to ensure that across the board we help create the conditions so that there are truly, ultimately African-led solutions to any of the challenges that Africa faces. But our support, I think, can be critical in doing that.
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. So it’s not simply the resources themselves. It’s how they’re used and according to what principles. In our case – and the foreign minister referred to this – we have coming out of the G7 the Build Back Better World program, and what – the feature of that program is that there are certain principles by which all of the countries involved will make infrastructure investments, including here in Africa.
Nonetheless, in his comments, he alluded to negatives that have been associated with Chinese investment in Africa:
And so, for example, we want to make sure that as investments are made, countries are not labored with tremendous debt that they can’t repay. That’s something we won’t do. We want to make sure that the rights of workers are foremost in our minds, that the environment is protected, that there’s no corruption that comes along with these investments, that we build together to the highest possible standards, and that we invest in areas and sectors that really will be the future for Africa as well as for the rest of the world, to include in green technology and green infrastructure, to include in health care systems, to include in information technology. So this is for us an affirmative vision of what investment can and should be, and again, it starts with the people of Africa. That’s the focus that we’re bringing to it.
And look, on one level, if there’s investment or trade coming into Africa or with Africa from anywhere else, including China, in principle that’s a great thing. And investment in infrastructure is a good thing and a necessary thing. But I think it’s important as countries are considering that that, again, they focus on not just the resources made available but how those resources are actually used. And that, at least in my mind, is where our focus is and where I think – and certainly in conversations that I’ve had just in the last couple of days as well as before that – where increasingly the minds of our partners in Africa are.
A Washington Post article about Blinken's remarks characterized the message this way: "Blinken and his top aides view the past four years of U.S.-Africa policy under President Donald Trump as ham-handed and focused on forcing African leaders to choose between working with the United States or China in a Cold War-style standoff." It also stated that: "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." Similarly, the NY Times said: "Mr. Blinken has adopted a lighter touch on the subject of China than his predecessor, Mike Pompeo, who framed his sole visit to Africa, in February 2020, around competition with Beijing -- urging African nations to 'be wary of authoritarian regimes and their empty promises.' He claimed that economic partnership with the U.S. would bring 'true liberation.'"