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Top U.S., Chinese and Russian officials tour Africa as global charm offensive gathers pace

  • February 01, 2023

Perhaps more controversially, South Africa last week announced a joint military exercise with Russia and China next month, coinciding with the anniversary of the invasion of Ukraine, which drew concern from the White House.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz also toured sub-Saharan Africa last year, while U.S. President Joe Biden held a U.S.-Africa Summit in December, perceived as an effort to recoup some of the economic and trade influence Washington has lost to China over the past decade or more. Blinken also stopped off in Egypt on Monday on the first leg of a planned tour of the Middle East amid a renewed spate of Israel-Palestinian violence.

Diplomatic analysts told CNBC last week that the flurry of diplomatic activity should not be seen as a “scramble for Africa,” but rather a demonstration that the continent’s economic and geopolitical bargaining power means it now firmly occupies a seat at the table.

African governments resist taking sides

In the backdrop of Yellen’s trip is Washington’s concern about its waning influence on a continent that has increasingly pivoted toward bilateral relations with global powers that do not exert pressure to adopt certain geopolitical positions.

As such, China has massively expanded its economic presence on the continent in recent years, while Russia has been able to build military and diplomatic influence in certain regions, particularly those beset by civil conflict or insurgency.

Chinese involvement on the continent began in earnest with Beijing’s backing of liberation movements challenging colonial rule, with commercial engagements intensifying from the late 1990s and culminating in the formalizing of the Belt and Road Initiative in 2013.

The Biden administration’s U.S. sub-Saharan Africa strategy was published in August 2022, and frames China’s view of Africa as “an important arena to challenge the rules-based international order, advance its own narrow commercial and geopolitical interests, undermine transparency and openness, and weaken U.S. relations with African peoples and governments.”

Prior to President Biden’s U.S.-African Leaders Summit in December, Thomas P. Sheehy, distinguished fellow at the United States Institute of Peace (USIP), highlighted that over the decades since the Cold War, China’s presence and influence in almost every African nation has increased significantly, while U.S. influence has “flatlined.”

“China is Africa’s largest two-way trading partner, hitting $254 billion in 2021, exceeding by a factor of four U.S.-Africa trade. China is the largest provider of foreign direct investment, supporting hundreds of thousands of African jobs. This is roughly double the level of U.S. foreign direct investment,” Sheehy said.

However, he highlighted that most African leaders remember with concern the U.S.-Soviet proxy wars conducted on the continent during the Cold War, and are therefore reluctant to become part of a global power struggle. As such, many African nations desire a strong relationship with both the U.S. and China, and U.S. diplomacy will be more effective when not framed as an “us-or-them” proposition.

The administration’s strategy paper alleges that Russia views Africa as “a permissive environment for parastatals and private military companies, often fomenting instability for strategic and financial benefit.”

This refers primarily to private military contractors such as Russia’s notorious Wagner Group, which has been increasingly active in politically unstable nations such as Mali, Burkina Faso, Sudan and the Central African Republic.

“Russia uses its security and economic ties, as well as disinformation, to undercut Africans’ principled opposition to Russia’s further invasion of Ukraine and related human rights abuses,” the paper adds.

Eleonora Tafuro, senior research fellow at the Russia, Caucasus and Central Asia Centre at Italy’s Institute for International Political Studies (ISPI), told CNBC last week that there was an increasing realization among Western powers that African nations have “their own agency” and it is up to them to decide whether relationships with China, Russia or Turkey, for instance, are in their interests.

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