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Eyeing China, Biden says U.S. is “all in“ on Africa

2022-12-14T19:42:12Z

With a wary eye on China, President Joe Biden announced an agreement aimed at bolstering trade ties between the United States and Africa on Wednesday after years in which the continent took a back seat to other U.S. priorities.

“The United States is ‘all in’ on Africa’s future,” Biden told African leaders attending a three-day summit in Washington.

Biden’s remarks, and the summit, aim to show that the United States is a better partner for Africa than China, which has sought to expand its influence by funding infrastructure projects in Africa and elsewhere. Chinese trade with Africa is about four times that of the United States, and Beijing has become an important creditor by offering loans with less stringent conditions than Western lenders.

Biden said a new U.S. agreement with the African Continental Free Trade Area will give American companies access to 1.3 billion people and a market valued at $3.4 trillion. He listed companies that had made deals at the summit, including General Electric Co (GE.N) and Cisco Systems Inc (CSCO.O).

“When Africa succeeds, the United States succeeds. Quite frankly, the whole world succeeds as well,” the president said.

Delegations from 49 countries and the African Union, including 45 African national leaders, are attending the three-day summit, which began on Tuesday, the first and is the first of its kind since 2014. Washington will also tout its support for food security and climate change.

It’s part of a renewed push to boost ties with a continent where U.S. interests have been challenged by China’s security ambitions and trade, investment and lending drives. By contrast, Beijing has held its own high-level meetings with Africa every three years for more than two decades.

While Sino-U.S. competition is a clear backdrop, U.S. officials have been reluctant to frame the gathering as a battle for influence. Biden didn’t mention China in his remarks, and Washington has toned down its criticism of Beijing’s lending practices and infrastructure projects amid calls from some African leaders for more American leadership.

Biden is expected to announce his support for the African Union’s joining the G20 group of the world’s largest economies as a permanent member during the summit.

U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai told African counterparts on Tuesday she wants to improve the continent’s U.S. trade preferences program to boost investment, and national security adviser Jake Sullivan said Washington will “bring resources to the table” and commit $55 billion to Africa over the next three years.

“We are not looking for a relationship that is transactional, that’s extractive, that is burdensome, or leaves various countries in a more fragile, poor state after a deal is done,” State Department spokesman Ned Price told reporters on Monday, skirting mention of China but using language that mirrored Washington’s critique of its behavior in Africa.

White House national security spokesman John Kirby underscored what he called China’s “malign influence” on the continent, while highlighting the importance of U.S. investments in Africa and helping countries there play a more active role in the global economy,

“It’s a two-way discussion that we want to have with Africa about trade, investment and opportunities for economic growth,” he told reporters.

At an opening trade forum on Wednesday, African leaders called for more investment from U.S. companies and agencies to take advantage of Africa’s vast land resources and young population.

“Instead of exporting commodities, the U.S. should find an opportunity in investing,” Kenyan President William Ruto said. “They have the machinery, they have the know-how, so that they can produce for the African continent in Africa.”

Ruto cited projections that Africa’s agribusiness sector will more than triple to $1 trillion by 2030 and said U.S. capital can help solve the continent’s physical infrastructure deficit to unlock this growth.

According to a Eurasia Group analysis, in 2021 China-Africa trade, at $254 billion, greatly outstripped U.S.-Africa trade, which stood at $64.3 billion. Those figures are up from $12 billion and $21 billion, respectively, in 2002.

Beijing’s lending to Africa has led to Western charges that China has mired African countries in debt.

Beijing’s ambassador to Washington, Qin Gang, rejected the idea ahead of the summit, citing a report that African countries owe three times more debt to Western institutions, while noting that Chinese-built hospitals, highways, airports and stadiums are “everywhere” in Africa.

China remains the region’s largest bilateral investor, but its new loan commitments to Africa have declined in recent years as pressure has built up both inside and outside China for its infrastructure investments to be more sustainable.

Offering loans to Africa on the same scale as China has not been a viable option for the United States. Instead, U.S. officials stress an approach focused on facilitating private investment.

It’s not all about economic sway – Washington has been alarmed by China’s efforts to establish a military foothold in Africa, including on the Atlantic coast in Equatorial Guinea.

For their part, many African leaders reject the idea that they need to choose between the United States and China.

“The fact that both countries have different levels of relations with African countries makes them equally important for Africa’s development,” Ethiopia’s U.N. ambassador, Taye Atske Selassie Amde, told Reuters. “However, it should be known each African country has the agency to determine their respective relationship and best interest.”

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