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US to visit France to discuss rising influence of China, Russia in Africa

By Julian Pecquet
Posted on Friday, 22 October 2021 12:27

French Economy and Finance Minister Le Maire meets US Special Presidential Envoy for Climate Kerry in Paris
French and U.S. flags in Paris, France, March 10, 2021. REUTERS/Benoit Tessier

The US State Department’s new top Africa official is headed to France on the tail end of her first trip abroad, as the two allies confront lingering terrorist threats as well as rising Chinese and Russian influence on the continent.

Mary Catherine ‘Molly’ Phee, the assistant secretary of state for African Affairs, will travel to Paris on Friday and Saturday after stops in Ghana and Burkina Faso. She was confirmed by the Senate on 23 September after months of Republican obstruction in Congress.

“We took the opportunity following the assistant secretary’s recent travel to Ghana and Burkina Faso to include a consultation with our French allies to discuss our shared global and regional priorities,” an emailed statement from the State Department spokesperson says.

The consultation comes as the Joe Biden administration is keen to emphasise US-French cooperation following last month’s clash over submarine sales to Australia, which prompted France to briefly recall its ambassador to Washington.

“France is a vital partner and our oldest ally. We share a long history of [common] democratic values and a commitment to working together to address global challenges,” the State Department source says. “The United States coordinates with France and other allies and partners on the full array of diplomatic, development, and defence approaches across the African continent, and in coordination with African institutions and partners.”

[The US is committed to] reinforcing its support to counter-terrorism operations in the Sahel conducted by European states.”

It’s not unusual for US officials to stop by Paris on the way back from Africa, says Tibor Nagy, Phee’s predecessor under the Donald Trump administration. “I always stopped in Paris, London, Brussels or Lisbon depending on where I was going.”

“Given France’s huge interests in the Sahel and West Africa, consultations in Paris with her counterpart and [the] presidency make sense. [It is] also a great opportunity to talk to [the] French press,” he says.

Still, Phee’s visit comes as both countries seek to increase cooperation amid a surge of shared challenges on the continent.

Terrorists and rivals

With the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan raising worldwide doubts about the might of the US and France facing backlash over its military drawdown in Mali, the two countries are looking to deepen counter-terrorism cooperation.

In his 22 September phone call with President Emmanuel Macron, Biden said the US is committed to “reinforcing its support to counter-terrorism operations in the Sahel conducted by European states.” The following week, Lloyd Austin, the US defense secretary, assured his French counterpart Florence Parly of “continued US support” for the Sahel mission, according to a US readout of the 27 September call.

Rising role of Russia…

Biden is expected to continue the conversation face-to-face when he meets with Macron at the end of the month, when he travels to Europe for the COP-26 climate summit in Glasgow.

The already complicated mission has been further muddled by rising Russian military involvement on the continent, with Moscow signing defence deals with key countries such as Nigeria and Ethiopia, while Russian mercenaries fight in Libya, Sudan and the Central African Republic. Reports that Mali may turn to the Wagner Group as France reduces its military footprint has sparked condemnation from both Paris and Washington.

“Given the Wagner Group’s record, if these reports are true, any role for Russian mercenaries in Mali will likely exacerbate an already fragile and unstable situation,” Cynthia King, the Pentagon spokeswoman,  told Voice of America earlier this month.

… and China

France and the US also share misgivings about the increasing role played by China, which is now Africa’s largest bilateral creditor.

Beijing has invested billions of dollars across the continent through its Belt and Road Initiative, prompting the US to announce the launch of a rival Build Back Better World (B3W) scheme with France and its other G7 partners touted as a “values-driven, high-standard, and transparent infrastructure partnership led by major democracies” to help address the $40trn in infrastructure needs within Africa and other developing countries.

US interests in Burkina Faso and Ghana

Phee also discussed Sahel’s security during her trip to Burkina Faso, where she met with government officials, civil society groups and members of the business community. Topics included strengthening democratic governance and boosting two-way trade and investment, including partnerships between American and African independent filmmakers, particularly during the Pan-African Film and Television Festival of Ouagadougou (FESPACO) that runs from 16 – 23 October.

The assistant secretary previously stopped by Ghana, which is enjoying an influence boost, as President Nana Addo Dankwa Akufo-Addo chairs the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) for a second term and Accra gets ready to join the UN Security Council for the 2022-2023 term. Conversations there included “ending the Covid-19 pandemic, expanding US-Ghana trade and investment, addressing the climate crisis, creating opportunities for clean energy, and strengthening democracy in West Africa.”

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