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Blinken visit: US’ new Africa policy is old wine in a new bottle

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Graphic: Timothy Alexander

By David Monyae and Dr Sizo Nkala

The US Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, kick-started the first leg of his five-day African tour when he touched down in South Africa on August 7. He will also visit the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Rwanda.

This is his second African tour in less than a year, having first visited in November 2021. It also comes a few days after his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, concluded his own visit to the continent.

Blinken’s visit comes amid major geopolitical shifts at the global level, namely Russia’s special operation in Ukraine, rising US-China tensions over Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan and the deteriorating global economy. The secretary of state will unveil the US-Africa strategy during his tour, which will potentially reset US-Africa relations.

It will not be the first time that the US unveils an initiative to advance its relations with Africa. The 2000 African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), former president Barack Obama’s Doing Business in Africa, Power Africa and Trade Africa, and his successor Donald Trump’s Prosper Africa are some of the strategies that have been unveiled by the US in its African forays.

These initiatives have dismally failed. While the US remains an important economic partner for Africa, it has lost considerable ground to China. For example, Chinese investments in Africa have created more than 18 500 jobs per year between 2010 and 2019, compared with the US average of 12 106.

Further, since 2009 China has been Africa’s largest trading partner. Beijing’s trade with Africa reached a peak of $254 billion in 2021, while the US-Africa trade in the same year amounted to a lowly $64.3bn. However, the US is still the largest donor in Africa, having unveiled an average of $9.5bn in Official Development Assistance to Africa between 2014 and 2016. On this visit the US will attempt to regain its influence in Africa relative to other major powers such as China and Russia.

The US’ new Africa policy is old wine in a new bottle. It will likely emphasise trade and investment. The US renewed and extended AGOA to 2025 in March this year. Africa has been one of the hardest-hit regions by the global economic downturn as a result of the disruptions caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.

The International Monetary Fund (IMF) estimates that Africa’s inflation will rise to 12.6% in 2022, the highest rate seen since the onset of the global financial crisis in 2008. The continent needs an economic boost through trade and investment. As part of reclaiming its influence in Africa, the US would be keen to expand its economic footprint.

The much-anticipated strategy is expected to make concrete the African dimension of the US-sponsored Build Back Better World (B3W) programme which was renamed the Partnership for Global Infrastructure Investment (PGII) at the 2022 Group of Seven gatherings.

Branded as a “values-based global infrastructure investment programme”, the PGII is widely seen as the West’s attempt to develop an alternative to China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) through which Beijing has availed hundreds of billions of dollars for infrastructure projects in the global south, including Africa. The BRI has helped narrow Africa’s enormous infrastructure financing gap of between $68bn and $108bn.

However, the US has criticised the BRI, claiming that China is using it to saddle developing countries with unsustainable debt and to export its authoritarian political and economic systems.

The US has led an anti-China coalition, projecting its BRI projects as bad for the environment and encouraging autocratic governments to violate human rights. The PGII has pledged to unveil $600bn in infrastructure funding across the energy, communication, technology, health and transport sectors in the developing world.

The Russia-Ukraine conflict will also be a major topic of Blinken’s discussions with African leaders. It has been more than five months since Russian forces invaded Ukraine as a pushback against the expansion of the US-led Nato. US President Joe Biden called the Russian-Ukraine conflict “an unjustifiable war” and vowed to make Russia a “pariah on the international stage”.

He further claimed that a “nation that countenances Russia’s naked aggression against Ukraine will be stained by association”. In addition to imposing punitive sanctions on Russia, the US has led a spirited campaign for Russia’s global isolation on platforms like the UN. The US co-sponsored a UN resolution to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in March 2022, which secured the support of 141 nations, including 22 from Africa.

However, it was far from a clean sweep as 35 countries decided to abstain, including 17 from Africa, while Eritrea became the only African country to vote against the resolution. Africa’s voting patterns at the UN were a clear indication that the US-led campaign for the isolation of Russia was getting a mixed reception on the continent.

As such, Blinken will be hell-bent on convincing more African leaders to condemn Russian aggression in Ukraine. This is important for the US because any support for Russia is tantamount to undermining a global order that was largely underwritten by Washington.

It is clear that Blinken’s visit to Africa cannot be divorced from the US’ geopolitical tussles with China and Russia. The visit is meant to push back against China and Russia’s growing influence in Africa.

The US Congress overwhelmingly voted to pass the Countering Malign Russian Influence Activities in Africa Act in June. The act, which will likely be approved by the US Senate, directs the government to punish African actors who co-operate with Russia.

The US Congress also passed the China Competition Bill, which seeks to curtail China’s influence in Africa as part of the US strategy to undermine China’s growing global influence. Blinken’s strategy, therefore, builds up on these two bills in the US Congress that seek to restrict African governments from doing business with Russia and China.

Hence, African leaders should be wary of being used as pawns in the major powers’ struggle for global supremacy. In their interactions with these countries, African leaders must uphold the interests of their countries and their people. Africa should exercise its agency and set the agenda in its engagements with global powers.

David Monyae is an Associate Professor of International Relations and Political Sciences and Director of the Centre for Africa – China Studies at the University of Johannesburg.

Dr Sizo Nkala is a postdoctoral fellow at the same institute.

This article is original to the The African. To republish, see terms and conditions