PRETORIA, South Africa – The United States is grappling with the growing influence of China, Russia and Middle Eastern countries across Africa, a situation exacerbated in recent months by competition to win partners in the war in Ukraine.
On Monday, Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken unveiled the Biden administration’s key approach to addressing that challenge and other strategic goals in Africa: promoting democratic governance across the continent.
“History shows that strong democracies are generally more stable and less prone to conflict – and that the poor governance, exclusion and corruption inherent in weak democracies makes them more vulnerable to extremist movements and foreign interference,” said Mr. Shine in a speech at the University of Pretoria, during the first stop of a tour of Africa that will also take him to the Democratic Republic of Congo and Rwanda.
It is unclear how his message will be received at a time when some African countries are turning away from democracy and settling into authoritarian rule – sometimes by military officers who staged coups. The United States could risk alienating those African leaders who prefer the authoritarian model or view Washington’s governmental pressure as an imperial power projection.
“If your tactic is to approach African countries and say, ‘Listen, you have to be democratic and use our model, then it will work,’ I think it will inevitably lead to failure,” said Naledi Pandor, the minister for Foreign Affairs of South Africa. who had a meeting with Mr Blinken on Monday.
“I agree with Tony that all countries and peoples deserve the right to exercise their civil and political rights,” she added. “But given the history, I think the approach should be slightly different, and I would recommend paying more attention to tools that Africans have developed.”
China, which Mr Blinken believes is the greatest challenger to US power, has built a massive presence in Africa, with state-owned companies building infrastructure across the continent, the Chinese military bolstering a base in Djibouti and the Communist Party building a pan-Africa leadership school in Tanzania. But some Africans have had backlash against the labor and lending practices of Chinese companies.
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Middle Eastern countries are also playing an increasing role throughout Africa: Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia are influential in the Horn of Africa, and Turkey has its largest embassy in the world in Somalia, where it is also the most important. port and airport.
Mr Blinken insisted at a press conference before his speech that the government’s Africa strategy was not aimed at rivalry with China and Russia. But a White House document released the same day said the effort to strengthen “open societies” was in part to counter “harmful activities” by China, Russia and “other foreign actors.”
Mr Blinken said in his speech that the US strategy “reflects the complexity, diversity and power of the region” and “focuses on what we will do with African nations and peoples, not for African nations and peoples.”
He also said pandemic recovery, health security, climate adaptation and environmental conservation are pillars of the Africa strategy — in line with what President Biden has listed as his global priorities.
The Biden administration has made the promotion of democracy a focus of its foreign policy, a return to the Democratic and Republican governments before that of President Donald J. Trump, who eschewed the target.
Unlike the post-September approach to democracy-building, which took place under a heavy US military presence in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Biden administration is trying to emphasize the use of hard power in Africa less.
Mr Blinken said the government would implement governance stability programs with local partners “in places where conditions are ripe for conflict” – projects enabled by the Global Fragility Act of 2019 that will generate $200 million annually over a decade. Congress-approved funds.
The strategy paper states that the United States aims “to halt the recent tide of authoritarianism and military takeovers” in part “through a targeted mix of positive incentives and punitive measures such as sanctions.”
Bob Wekesa, deputy director of the African Center for the Study of the United States at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, said: “The new strategy is to move away from that preaching and proselytizing approach of the past, but at the same time, it is coming. not far from it.”
Mr Blinken and the National Security Council have chosen to announce the new strategy in South Africa because it is the continent’s largest democracy and a major trading partner of the US.
But American diplomacy has encountered obstacles here. US officials have struggled to convince South African colleagues to give up a neutral stance on the war in Ukraine. South Africa was among 17 African countries that abstained in March on a UN General Assembly resolution condemning Russia, as opposed to 28 African countries that approved the resolution.
Mr Blinken tried to highlight Russia’s brutality on Monday, claiming that the economic devastation caused by the pandemic was “exacerbated by Russia’s unprovoked war against Ukraine”. He quoted World Bank estimates that the invasion could add 40 million people — mostly in Africa — to the ranks of the 193 million people worldwide in need of humanitarian food assistance.
Ms. Pandor, meanwhile, criticized the Countering Malign Russian Activities in Africa Act passed by the US House of Representatives in May, which would partially identify Africans working with US-sanctioned Russians.
Gustavo de Carvalho, senior researcher on Russia-Africa relations at the South African Institute of International Affairs, said African countries are not just choosing sides between the West and China or Russia, but are driven by self-interest.
“In some cases it’s a little more pragmatic,” he said.
As Africa’s most advanced economy, South Africa has fostered trade relations with the United States and Europe. Although China is its largest trading partner, South Africa has a trade surplus with the United States. Their trade last year totaled $21 billion.
Many South African citizens have called on Cyril Ramaphosa, the president, to condemn Russia, but he has avoided doing so.
He traveled to a multinational summit in Beijing in June before flying to a group of 7 meeting in the Bavarian Alps. In China, Mr Ramaphosa agreed to a statement calling for talks between Kiev and Moscow along with impartial humanitarian aid. In Germany, the South African summit’s main statement evaded the Ukraine issue, focusing instead on climate change and energy policy.
On Monday, Ms. Pandor took an equally distant stance on tensions between the United States and China, saying engagement would be destructive to African and other nations.
“These are two superpowers, the two largest economies in the world,” she said. “They have to find a way to work together to help us grow.”
Edward Wonga reported from Pretoria, South Africa, and Lynsey Chutel message from Johannesburg. Declan Walsh contributed reporting from Nairobi, Kenya.