US to relaunch Leaders Summit to compete with China & Russia in Africa

By Julian Pecquet

Posted on Monday, 1 August 2022 18:05, updated on Wednesday, 31 August 2022 22:55
American President Joe Biden and Head of Congolese State Félix Tshisekedi at the G20 summit in Rome, 31 October 2021. © Adam Schultz/White House/ZUMA Press/REA

President Barack Obama hosted the first US-Africa Leaders Summit in August 2014 with the stated intent to “help launch a new chapter in US-African relations.”

Immensely popular across the continent, America’s first Black president hosted almost 50 heads of state for a historic three-day event to “send a very clear signal that we are elevating our engagement with Africa.” The inaugural summit was widely seen as a belated US response to increased African political and economic engagement with other countries, notably China.

Eight years on, the US has only continued to lose ground to its competitors in Africa.

China has been the continent’s top trading partner since 2009. Meanwhile two-way trade in goods with the US has only continued to decline since the first summit, from $72.7bn in 2014 to $64.3bn last year.

Moscow has likewise been making inroads, with the Kremlin-backed mercenaries of the Wagner Group now operating in as many as 18 African countries, according to the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington. Russian diplomacy is also on the case, with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov touring Egypt, the Republic of Congo, Uganda and Ethiopia in July to blame western sanctions for the food crisis on the continent rather than President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.

Enter the Joe Biden administration.

The US leader, who was Obama’s vice president during the first summit, has announced his own three-day summit to be held Dec. 13 – 15 in Washington. Its stated goals include fostering new economic engagement, reinforcing democracy and human rights and responding to the food security and climate crises.

The 79-year-old president has visited US allies in Europe, Asia and the Middle East in his first 18 months in office but not Africa, so the summit will mark his most significant engagement with the continent to date.

This summit will demonstrate America’s enduring commitment to our African partners, and it will be based on principles of mutual respect and shared interests and values.

“President Biden believes that US collaboration with African leaders as well as civil society, business, diaspora, and youth leaders is essential to tackling shared challenges and seizing opportunities,” a National Security Council spokesperson told The Africa Report, “including increasing sustainable food production, combatting the Covid-19 pandemic, responding to the escalating climate crisis, building a strong and inclusive global economy, providing life-saving humanitarian assistance, and strengthening global norms, institutions, and the rule of law.”

At its core, the summit aims to position the United States as the natural partner for a youthful, democratically spirited Africa.

“This summit will demonstrate America’s enduring commitment to our African partners, and it will be based on principles of mutual respect and shared interests and values,” said Vice President Kamala Harris. “And a critical part of this Summit will be to bolster our economic relationship.”

Losing ground

Baked into the US administration’s thinking is an implicit acknowledgment that the world’s only superpower can’t sit out the pan-African trends that have been on the rise in recent years.

  • Already in 2014, the United States was playing catch-up with established summits by China, the European Union, France, Japan, Turkey and India. Since then Russia and the United Kingdom have joined the mix with their own African events.

By the time of US  hosts its event in December, the EU, the UK, Turkey, India and Japan will all have had their respective summits. Russia is slated to hold its second Africa summit in the middle of next year, while China held its fourth triannual Forum on China–Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) in Senegal in November 2021.

“Honestly speaking, I think part of it is that everybody’s doing it,” says Tibor Nagy, a former Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs now at Texas Tech University. The Biden administration’s goal, he says, is for the summits to be “the foundation that America cares, not just for Africa, but for Africans.”

Obama shared similar thoughts back in 2014 when he described the summit as a “forcing mechanism for decisions and action” for a US bureaucracy that has long neglected Africa compared to other regions of the world.

“We agreed that the US-Africa leaders summit will be a recurring event to hold ourselves accountable for our commitments and to sustain our momentum,” Obama said at a press conference after the summit. “And I’ll strongly encourage my successor to carry on this work, because Africa must know that they will always have a strong and reliable partner in the United States of America.”

However, that was not to be.

Relations with Africa withered under President Donald Trump, who never once set foot on the continent and angered many with his reported remarks about “shithole countries.”

“The idea was to do it regularly. But then politics got in the way, elections got in the way, and the subsequent administration had, shall we say, diplomatically very little interest in Africa.” says Stephen Nolan, a former ambassador to Botswana who was one of at least three former State Department officials brought in from retirement to help organise Obama’s summit. “So it’s good to see Africa coming back on stage rather than off in the wings.”

Nagy says the Biden administration is keen to draw a distinction with Trump.

“The US is very sensitive, or at least the White House is very sensitive, to the criticism that it’s not taking Africa any more seriously than the Trump administration (did),” he says.

Business first

The administration has also been keen not to take Africa for granted in its rivalry with China, says Cameron Hudson, a former White House official now with CSIS.

Many people on the continent, he says, “didn’t appreciate” the Africa policy speech that Trump’s national security adviser John Bolton gave at the conservative Heritage Foundation in 2018 about China’s alleged “strategic use of debt to hold states in Africa captive to Beijing’s wishes and demands.” By contrast, Biden administration officials have insisted that “we are not asking our African partners to choose” between the US and China.

“Certainly, at the start of the [Biden] administration, there was a very distinct effort to want to pivot away from China in Africa,” says Hudson. “And they wanted to kind of reframe the debate (that) made it sound like Africa is just one of the chessboards that we’re operating on to counter Chinese influence.”

The geopolitical order has changed dramatically over the past 15 months, however.

China has only deepened its relationship with the continent, with two-way trade surging by 35% in 2021 to reach a high of $254bn. Meanwhile the war in Ukraine is prompting a showdown with Russia in Africa, with the US dispatching everyone from Secretary of State Antony Blinken to US Agency for International Development (USAID) Administrator Samantha Power and Ambassador to the UN Linda Thomas-Greenfield to blame Moscow for soaring food prices and get Africans to condemn the invasion.

“Whether we call it a Cold War or strategic competition, the facts on the ground have really changed since the idea for this summit even came into being at the very beginning of the administration,” says Hudson.  “And so, as much as they didn’t want it to be about these two states, I think in some ways it has. And maybe (the administration’s) answer to that is just to sort of underline what our values are, to differentiate between (the US) and the Russians and the Chinese.”

Much of that effort will centre around developing trade and business opportunities with the continent, notably by leveraging the significant African diaspora in the United States. The summit will notably kick off the annual forum of the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), the duty-free access program to the US market that is up for renewal in 2025.

“The 2022 Africa Growth and Opportunity Act Ministerial Meeting will be a valuable opportunity to re-affirm the United States’ engagement with the continent,” said US Trade Representative Katherine Tai. “I look forward to welcoming my fellow trade ministers to Washington, DC this December for productive and thoughtful discussions on the future of this important relationship.”

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