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Joe Biden

In Africa, Trump saw 'huts.' Biden sees opportunity to curb President Xi's growing influence

WASHINGTON – When Donald Trump looked at Africa, he crudely dismissed its significance and fretted African immigrants would never “go back to their huts” once they entered the United States.

When Joe Biden looks at Africa, he sees opportunities to curb China’s growing influence in the world.

Biden has sought to move beyond Trump’s dismissive, sometimes confrontational approach and focus instead on deepening ties with a continent that is home to a rapidly growing population and stands as a potentially important geopolitical partner.

“Our eyes are fixed squarely on the future,” Biden told a small group of African leaders in Washington last year.

But beneath the promissory oratory lies a more strategic reason for the shift in attitude and approach to U.S.-Africa policy.

“It’s about China,” said Mark Green, former ambassador to Tanzania and president of the Wilson Center, a nonpartisan think tank that focuses on global affairs. “It’s about great power, competition.”

On Wednesday, Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping met in person for the second time since Biden became president. The four-hour meeting, held on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperative conference in San Francisco, comes as the two leaders work to repair relations deeply strained by a trade war that started when Trump was in office and by clashes over technology,China’s aggression against Taiwan and a Chinese spy balloon that flew over the United States earlier this year until a U.S. fighter jet shot it down.

In his opening remarks, Biden told Xi the two leaders must ensure that competition between their countries “does not veer into conflict.”

“We have to manage it responsibly – that competition,” Biden said. “That’s what the United States want and what we intend to do. I also believe that's what the world wants from both of us: candid exchange.”

Xi said that while the China-U.S. relationship has never been smoothing sailing, “it has kept moving forward amid twists and turns.”

“Planet Earth is big enough for the two countries to succeed, and one country’s success is an opportunity for the other,” he said.

Neither leader acknowledged, at least not publicly, the newest arena in the competition between the two economic giants: Africa.

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President Joe Biden greets Senegalese President Macky Sall during the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit in Washington last December.

'New kid on the block in Africa'

China, an economic and military rival of the United States, has made significant gains in Africa over the past two decades, setting off alarms in the U.S. and among European countries who fear Beijing’s growing influence in the world.

“China in the 2000s became the new kid on the block in Africa,” said Amaka Anku, who heads the Africa practice for the Eurasia Group, a global political risk consulting firm based in New York City.

China has far surpassed the U.S. as an economic player in Africa. Trade between China and Africa hit $254 billion in 2021 – four times the trade between the U.S. and Africa, according to the United States Institute of Peace, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization founded by Congress.

China is the largest provider of foreign direct investment in Africa, supporting hundreds of thousands of African jobs – roughly double the level of U.S. foreign direct investment on the continent. China is also by far the largest lender to African countries, often providing loans that come with much more favorable terms than those offered by U.S. lenders.

What’s more, the Chinese have been pushing to establish a military base on Africa’s western coast – a particular concern for the Biden administration, which sees China as the most consequential threat to U.S. national security.

“This is a crossroads moment for U.S.-Africa relations,” Green said. “And I think it’s important that we continue to build relationships.”

The best way to do that, he said, is for the president to set foot in Africa – “quite frankly, the sooner, the better.”

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Biden has said he plans to visit Africa this year, although no plans have been announced, and with just six weeks left in 2023, a trip there this year seems unlikely. The White House, pressed by reporters on whether Biden plans to keep his promise to visit before the end of the year, has simply said that it has no update on his travel schedule.

Biden insists his goal is not to contain China, and his administration has downplayed suggestions that his interest in Africa is tied to a desire to curb Chinese influence there.

Besides the economy, analysts say there are multiple reasons for the U.S. to engage with Africa, not the least of which is the rise of authoritarianism on the continent – a concern for the U.S. and other democracies. Africa also has the world’s youngest population. The top 10 countries with the lowest median age are there, according to the Wilson Center.

The African Union, which represents the continent’s 54 countries, is pushing for a permanent seat or seats on the U.N. National Security Council, which would provide some of the respect the continent has long sought on the world stage.

Biden has publicly supported not only giving Africa a permanent seat at the U.N. but adding the African Union to the Group of 20 nations. South Africa is currently the only African member of the G-20, a governmental forum made up of the world’s major industrial and emerging countries.

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'African leaders don't want to be chess pieces'

Trump didn’t exactly endear himself to Africans during the four years he was in office. He never visited Africa during his presidency, making him the first president since Ronald Reagan to never set foot on the continent while in office.

Trump’s incendiary language didn’t help, either.

During an Oval Office meeting with lawmakers about immigration, he questioned why the U.S. would accept more migrants from Haiti and “sh**hole countries” in Africa rather than places like Norway. In a separate meeting a few months earlier, he reportedly groused that thousands of Haitians who’d entered the United States had AIDS and that Nigerian visitors would never “go back to their huts” in Africa. Critics called his remarks derogatory and racist.

Biden sought to reset relations with Africa upon taking office. Last December, the administration hosted the first U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit since 2014. Heads of state from 49 African nations and the African Union were invited to Washington for an opportunity to re-engage with the Biden administration.

To underscore its commitment to Africa, the U.S. has promised to send $55 billion to Africa over the next three years for initiatives to improve health care, mitigate the dangers of climate change, boost trade and investment and set up programs to help women entrepreneurs.

And while Biden has yet to visit, first lady Jill Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris, Secretary of State Antony Blinken and other administration officials have traveled to the continent over the past year, promising the U.S. is serious about deepening its ties to Africa.

Whenever Biden makes the trip, African leaders will be looking for more than promises from the administration, analysts said.

They will be looking for a signal that the U.S. considers the region important – and not just as a buffer against China, Green said.

“African leaders don’t want to be chess pieces,” he said.

African countries need funding to help them finance critical development initiatives, infrastructure projects and climate change mitigation, said Rama Yade, senior director of the Atlantic Council’s Africa Center.

“They have development needs of $200 billion per year, and that is absolutely key,” she said. “Six hundred million people suffer from a lack of electricity, not to mention food insecurity, problems of housing, of transportation, of infrastructure. Those are critical.”

African leaders are willing to work so closely with China, Yade said, “because the Chinese – they bring money.”

The U.S. government’s announcement of funding programs for Africa in the past has always come with the promise of millions of dollars in accompanying investments from the private sector. But the private sector funding seldom materializes, Anku said.

For now, “I think what African countries would like to see is ‘show me the money,’” she said.

While Africa has many big-ticket needs, smaller projects or those that directly benefit communities can sometimes have the most lasting impact, Green said.

Green came to realize that soon after he was named ambassador to Tanzania and landed in Dar es Salaam to present his credentials. The arrival of a new ambassador is a big deal, with lots of limousines and a ceremony filled with pomp and circumstance. But what Green remembers most about that day is his cab driver.

“Before we took off, he turned around, leaned (over) to me and he said, ‘I was taught by a Peace Corps teacher,’ and he returned to the wheel,” Green said. “For him, that was the big deal, not the formalities. It was American compassion and action.”

“That, to me,” Green added, “is how you make a difference.”

Michael Collins covers the White House. Follow him on Twitter @mcollinsNEWS.

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