Uninvited guest: China’s shadow looms over Biden’s African outreach summit

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The Biden administration doesn’t want to talk about it, but China’s expanding military activities and economic influence in Africa loom large over a major three-day summit with African leaders the White House is hosting next week.

While the Pentagon and prominent foreign policy analysts warn of Beijing’s efforts to challenge American interests and allies on the continent, administration officials have avoided even mentioning China ahead of the arrival of 49 African leaders in Washington.

The White House has cast the Dec. 13-15 “U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit” as a chance to “listen to and meet African aspirations,” while focusing on “revitalizing democracies and strengthening the free and open international order.”

But when asked about China’s courting of African countries in recent years, the administration has been less than eager to address the summit’s potentially vital significance to President Biden’s oft-touted promise to outcompete Beijing on the world stage.

“This summit is really about our relationship with the continent, it’s not about other countries and their engagement,” said one senior administration official briefing reporters on background, although officials added that “the summit is really rooted in the recognition that Africa is a key geopolitical player.”

“With one of the world’s fastest-growing populations, largest free-trade areas, most diverse ecosystems and one of the largest regional voting groups in the United Nations, African contributions, partnerships and leadership are essential to meeting this era’s defining challenges,” the official told reporters on Thursday.

What remains to be seen is how U.S. hopes square with the reality that China has been out-trading the U.S. on the continent for more than a decade. Even as this week’s briefings were happening, Chinese President Xi Jinping was receiving a warm and lavish welcome for a visit to Saudi Arabia that will include bilateral talks and a summit with a number of Gulf Arab countries.

China surpassed the U.S. as Africa’s largest trade partner in 2009, with total bilateral trade reaching more than $254 billion in 2021, a 35% rise [over] 2020,” according to a Chatham House analysis.

During the Trump presidency, U.S. officials openly accused the Chinese Communist regime of engaging in predatory lending aimed at saddling developing countries in Africa and elsewhere with debt to gain political influence over them and drain them of natural resources.

Beijing rejected such allegations, asserting that Chinese loans leave the sovereignty of African nations “unscathed” and that it’s Western — not Chinese — institutions that saddle Africa with debt for political and material gain.

Analysts say infrastructure development should factor into the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit, even if U.S. initiatives face an uphill battle in the face of China’s entrenched position on the continent.

The congressionally chartered U.S.-China Economic Security and Review Commission warned in 2020 that Beijing funding of Africa’s infrastructure projects often includes requirements that borrower countries select Chinese suppliers, making it more difficult for the U.S. to participate.

Former commission Vice Chair Carolyn Bartholomew asserted at the time that Beijing “has been able to leverage its engagement in Africa into support on the international stage.”

China has used its presence in Africa to isolate Taiwan diplomatically,” she said, noting that nearly every African country recognizes Beijing over Taipei, while many African leaders have also “expressed support for Beijing’s territorial claims in the South China Sea and made public statements in support of Beijing during the 2019 protests in Hong Kong.”

Deep U.S.-China competition is playing out in countries such as the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), a vast sub-Saharan nation that’s among the world’s top producers of copper, cobalt and coltan — minerals vital to the manufacture of advanced technologies, including many promoted by the Biden administration for fighting climate change.

A Brookings Institution report issued ahead of the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit warned that “despite such abundance of valuable resources, the U.S. has not sufficiently invested in the DRC or in the mining sector for these minerals, ceding its influence in this domain to China.”

“The U.S. should accelerate its investment in the DRC and its mining sector by focusing on partnerships based on mutual interests: peace and security, economic diversification and local value,” the report said. “Positioning itself as an alternative to an extractive model — for example, by promoting local and continental value chains in the clean technology sector — will be beneficial.”

Markets and bases

A senior administration official said Thursday that a goal of the summit is to promote “broad-based economic opportunity both in Africa and the United States” that addresses the climate crisis, while also “harnessing new research and technologies and investing in long-term sources of strength.”

The Pentagon created the U.S. Africa Command in 2007 to address evolving security issues on the continent and promote more cohesive defense relations with several African nations. The command has grown increasingly wary of China’s own defense moves on the continent.

Army Gen. Stephen Townsend warned in May 2021 that Beijing was moving behind the scenes to establish a major naval port on Africa’s west coast to host Chinese submarines and aircraft carriers capable of projecting power directly into the Atlantic.

Gen. Townsend, who headed the Africa Command at the time, said Chinese officials had approached countries stretching from Mauritania to south of Namibia in search of where to position the naval facility. “They’re looking for a place where they can rearm and repair warships,” he told The Associated Press.

Meanwhile, a surge in the number of military coups bringing down democratic governments across Africa can be traced at least in part to China’s rising regional and global influence, according to regional experts, who also blame successive U.S. administrations for failing to develop a more coherent strategy for investing in and bolstering democracy on the continent.

Seven coups and coup attempts over the past two years — the highest rate in more than four decades — have put power-thirsty military cliques in control of such resource-rich nations as Chad, Mali, Sudan, Burkina Faso and Guinea, while unsuccessful coups occurred in Guinea-Bissau and Niger. For many, China is a preferred partner because it does not attach political or human rights conditions to the deals it makes in the region.

Analysts point to a range of root causes, including ethnic and sectarian divisions in several countries in play, as well as corruption and mismanagement by civilian governments and weak or corrupted civil institutions in countries where democracy has struggled.

But China’s role shouldn’t be overlooked, according to Joseph Sany, who heads the Africa Center at the United States Institute of Peace.

China has created a permission structure for coup plotters in Africa because plotters know Russia and China will work together to stop any sanctions the United Nations Security Council might try to impose on the plotter as punishment for carrying out a coup,” Mr. Sany told The Washington Times in June.

China and Russia have veto power on the Security Council, so in this way they have helped to create a climate of impunity and therefore an opening for any potential coup plotters who may be out there in these African countries,” Mr. Sany said.

After a month of high-profile Asian summitry in November, next week’s U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit is expected to be Mr. Biden’s last major diplomatic initiative of 2022. In announcing the summit, the president said it will advance peace and security, respond to climate change, promote food security, help foster new economic engagement and reinforce a shared commitment to democracy and human rights.

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