U.S.-Africa Summit: China Was the Dragon in the Room

Forty nine African heads of state and government gathered in Washington, Dec. 13-15 for the second U.S.-Africa Summit. All the participants, and all other world leaders, were well aware that President Biden had decided to organize the conference in order to build political traction in Africa as a counter to China, in particular, and secondarily to Russia.

While U.S. officials issued many warnings privately about Beijing’s alleged “debt traps”, there was little mention of such subjects in in the public program, undoubtedly for fear of blowback. The Biden Administration has apparently realized that African leaders welcome the infrastructure projects and real development that China has brought to the continent, and will not reject such initiatives, much less fall into an China-bashing trap.

The importance of China as an economic player in Africa has long since outstripped that of the United States. According to the U.S. Institute of Peace, a federal government institution, two-way trade between China and Africa in 2021 was four times greater than that of U.S. with Africa. In terms of foreign direct investment, which supports hundreds of thousands of jobs locally, China provides roughly double the level of the U.S. Overall, China remains by far the largest lender to African countries.

While the relationship to Russia is somewhat different, few African leaders have swallowed NATO propaganda on Ukraine, having understood the deeper reasons for the proxy war. Moreover, they are aware that Western sanctions are responsible for blocking the delivery of vital grain supplies from Russia and Ukraine to Africa.

Senegal President Macky Sall, the current Chairman of the African Union, summed up the African position in remarks to the New York Times: “Let no one tell us no, don’t work with so-and-so, just work with us. We want to work and trade with everyone.”

There were promises from Washington for expanded trade and investments, with White House officials mentioning the figure of $55 billion in aid to Africa over the next five years. What this will entail is not clear. The Biden Administration has talked of promoting the digital economy, mainly in an effort to undercut the role of Huawei, as well as the development of renewable energy sources. And as usual, there are pledges of providing funds for promoting “democracies” and “countering disinformation”, in addition to the emergency humanitarian aid.

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