Picture: Jonathan Ernst – US Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen.
By Ekaterina Blinova
US Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen embarked on an 11-day trip to Senegal, Zambia, and South Africa last week. The declared goal of Yellen’s charm offensive is to offer new economic opportunities to African nations. What other objectives is the treasury secretary pursuing in the world’s second-largest continent?
“Zambia is an important partner of China and is experiencing significant problems because of debts, it is likely that [the US-Zambian] negotiations will concern possible assistance [to Lusaka],” Andrey Maslov, director of the Center for African Studies Faculty of World Economy and International Affairs, National Research University Higher School of Economics, told Sputnik. “It raises questions as to what the US can ask for in return.”
“Senegal is the economic leader of French West Africa, South Africa is a financial center of a continental scale; the headquarters of the largest African banks are located there. South Africa is also an important player in the world gold market, chairman of the BRICS, and a member of the G20,” the academic continued.
Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen’s first stop of her three-leg African tour is Dakar, Senegal. Her main message is that the US is there to stay. According to the US press, Washington is interested in strengthening its ties with Africa since it is eying the massive economic opportunities stemming from the continent’s demographic boom.
Last August, Washington rolled out its new Africa strategy, which places emphasis on the continent’s growing global importance. Even though the US president has yet to visit Africa, Secretary of State Antony Blinken has gone to the continent several times.
In December 2022, the Biden administration invited 50 African leaders and delegations for the US-Africa Leaders Summit, which took place in Washington, DC in a bid to convince them that the continent is now a priority for the White House, as per American political observers.
Countering China’s Presence
Even though Yellen’s visit is seen as a part of Washington’s new Africa strategy, some US media have drawn attention to the fact that her trip came on the heels of a Chinese tour to the continent. Qin Gang, China’s new foreign minister, wrapped up his Africa tour on January 16.
According to the Western mainstream press, the Biden administration’s Africa strategy envisages countering Beijing’s influence in the region and offering an “alternative” to China’s projects in Africa. In recent decades, China has considerably expanded its presence in the region.
The US is lagging behind the People’s Republic in terms of trade, foreign direct investment, and business initiatives in Africa. China is Africa’s largest two-way trading partner: in 2021, China’s trade with the continent reached $254 billion, while that of the US amounted to just $83.6 billion.
Washington is seeking ways to outperform the Chinese and is quietly pushing ahead with the African Growth and Opportunity Act’s (AGOA) prolongation. The AGOA provides eligible sub-Saharan African states with duty-free access to the US market for over 1,800 products and is set to expire in 2025. However, according to Africa experts, these efforts appear to be too little, too late.
“It is difficult to bully China out of Africa, because of China’s use of power, which is intertwined with what the people want,” Maurice Okoli, Ph.D., a fellow at the Institute for African and the Institute of World Economy and International Relations at the Russians Academy of Sciences, told Sputnik. “When you go to an African country, 50% or 40% of the industrial goods that are consumed there are from China. Because Chinese goods are coming in, the Western products are leaving because they can’t compete. Chinese products are cheaper than those from a Western company.”
Efforts to Isolate Russia
Washington’s other Africa competitor is Russia, whose influence on the continent ranges from trade to military cooperation and is built on the solid basis of its Soviet legacy. Last year, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov announced Russia’s comeback to the region and paid visits to the continent’s major players.
Apart from curtailing Moscow’s influence, the US is struggling to isolate Russia over the latter’s special military operation to demilitarize and de-Nazify Ukraine.
To that end, on April 27, 2022, the US House of Representatives passed the HR 7311 Countering Malign Russian Activities in Africa Act with a bipartisan 419-9 majority. The legislation, which appears to be on hold, was aimed at sanctioning African nations over cooperating with Moscow.
On January 18, South African Foreign Minister Naledi Pandor argued in an interview with Sputnik that the bill needs to be trashed because it violates international law.
Previously, Pretoria openly confronted Washington over the bill. While meeting with his US counterpart Joe Biden in Washington on September 16, 2022, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa subjected the US’ anti-Russia bill to criticism. Ramaphosa insisted that Africans should not be “punished” for their non-aligned position among major powers, adding that the legislation would harm Africa and marginalize the continent.
African countries have repeatedly expressed dissatisfaction with the US-promoted Cold War-style mindset as well as attempts to force them into choosing sides in Washington’s confrontation with Moscow and Beijing.
“South Africa (…) has already outlined its position,” Masov said. “Pressure and attempts to extend the American sanctions to the territory of other countries are unacceptable for Africans. Africa, however, will seek economic benefits from cooperation with the United States. Most countries in Africa, especially the economic and political leaders of the continents, are consistently neutral.”
Yellen’s Price-Capping Charade
Yet another example of Washington’s pressure is the recent attempt to force Africans into implementing its price-capping scheme. The Group of Seven, Australia, and the EU announced a $60 price cap on Russian maritime crude on December 5, 2022.
Earlier, Treasury Secretary Yellen claimed that the scheme is aimed to help developing countries buy Russian oil at a sweet discount. She said that the US is “certainly” not trying to urge African countries not to buy Russian crude as long as they comply with the cap.
“This is sly rhetoric,” said Maslov. “Now Russian oil prices are below the cap, and therefore African countries are buying oil at a price below the limit. In fact, Yellen is trying to tell the Africans that what they are already doing, they are doing at her permission. But they won’t buy this. Moreover, African countries do not import oil from Russia, they import petroleum products. And they will continue to buy [the commodity] without regard to the cap, at the price agreed with Russia.”
According to Okoli, Yellen’s attempt to impose the G7’s price-capping scheme on Africa contradicts free market rules.
“You see, we are living in a globalized world with a free market economy, putting a cap on a product is anti-free market economy, is anti-capitalism. They distort the market,” argued Okoli. “They have a reason for doing that, because of the issue in Ukraine and all this. But at the same time, you can’t force people to do what they don’t want, or do it because of the power of the American economy and the power to disrupt other countries. Other countries have to weigh what they gain or what they lose by doing what they do. America controls one third of world trade. It is a large economy. They have the capacity to disrupt economic activities in Africa, and all other countries as well.”
Dire Need for Development
“Africa is the world’s last frontier for development. It’s the second largest continent in terms of landmass and population and the continent is rich in mineral resources, all kinds of minerals, oil, gas, lithium, gold and diamonds,” said Maurice Okoli.
Africa has matured over centuries and it’s up to Africans to decide whom to strike business deals with, according to the scholar. “Africa is looking out for its own interests,” he stressed, adding that US intimidation won’t work.
“Africa is in dire need of development,” Okoli said. “Especially, there is something that Russia can give to Africa. And that is energy. Russia is good at atomic energy. There is a deficit of energy in Africa. [Russia] can enter Africa, build nuclear power, and provide electricity to the African country. You cannot talk of the modern economy without energy, without electricity.”
Africans are welcoming Russia’s comeback to the continent, given their history of successful cooperation with Moscow in the Soviet era, the scholar noted.
“Africa knows Russia very well, and they still feel the impact of the Soviet Union. During Soviet times, they helped in industrialization, cultural promotion, education, and so many things. And then there are so many specialists trained by Russia who are in Africa, and most of them are in government now. So it’s easier for Russia to navigate,” Okoli concluded.
This article was first published in Sputnik.