WASHINGTON – When Donald Trump looked at Africa, he crudely dismissed its significance and fretted African immigrants would never “go back to their huts” once they entered the United States.
When Joe Biden looks at Africa, he sees opportunities to curb China’s growing influence in the world.
Biden has sought to move beyond Trump’s dismissive, sometimes confrontational approach and focus instead on deepening ties with a continent that is home to a rapidly growing population and stands as a potentially important geopolitical partner.
“Our eyes are fixed squarely on the future,” Biden told a small group of African leaders in Washington last year.
But beneath the promissory oratory lies a more strategic reason for the shift in attitude and approach to U.S.-Africa policy.
“It’s about China,” said Mark Green, former ambassador to Tanzania and president of the Wilson Center, a nonpartisan think tank that focuses on global affairs. “It’s about great power, competition.”
On Wednesday, Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping met in person for the second time since Biden became president. The four-hour meeting, held on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperative conference in San Francisco, comes as the two leaders work to repair relations deeply strained by a trade war that started when Trump was in office and by clashes over technology,China’s aggression against Taiwan and a Chinese spy balloon that flew over the United States earlier this year until a U.S. fighter jet shot it down.
In his opening remarks, Biden told Xi the two leaders must ensure that competition between their countries “does not veer into conflict.”
“We have to manage it responsibly – that competition,” Biden said. “That’s what the United States want and what we intend to do. I also believe that’s what the world wants from both of us: candid exchange.”
Xi said that while the China-U.S. relationship has never been smoothing sailing, “it has kept moving forward amid twists and turns.”
“Planet Earth is big enough for the two countries to succeed, and one country’s success is an opportunity for the other,” he said.
Neither leader acknowledged, at least not publicly, the newest arena in the competition between the two economic giants: Africa.
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‘New kid on the block in Africa’
China, an economic and military rival of the United States, has made significant gains in Africa over the past two decades, setting off alarms in the U.S. and among European countries who fear Beijing’s growing influence in the world.
“China in the 2000s became the new kid on the block in Africa,” said Amaka Anku, who heads the Africa practice for the Eurasia Group, a global political risk consulting firm based in New York City.
China has far surpassed the U.S. as an economic player in Africa. Trade between China and Africa hit $254 billion in 2021 – four times the trade between the U.S. and Africa, according to the United States Institute of Peace, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization founded by Congress.
China is the largest provider of foreign direct investment in Africa, supporting hundreds of thousands of African jobs – roughly double the level of U.S. foreign direct investment on the continent. China is also by far the largest lender to African countries, often providing loans that come with much more favorable terms than those offered by U.S. lenders.
What’s more, the Chinese have been pushing to establish a military base on Africa’s western coast – a particular concern for the Biden administration, which sees China as the most consequential threat to U.S. national security.
“This is a crossroads moment for U.S.-Africa relations,” Green said. “And I think it’s important that we continue to build relationships.”
The best way to do that, he said, is for the president to set foot in Africa – “quite frankly, the sooner, the better.”
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Biden has said he plans to visit Africa this year, although no plans have been announced, and with just six weeks left in 2023, a trip there this year seems unlikely. The White House, pressed by reporters on whether Biden plans to keep his promise to visit before the end of the year, has simply said that it has no update on his travel schedule.
Biden insists his goal is not to contain China, and his administration has downplayed suggestions that his interest in Africa is tied to a desire to curb Chinese influence there.
Besides the economy, analysts say there are multiple reasons for the U.S. to engage with Africa, not the least of which is the rise of…