U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris deepens U.S.-African relations on a diplomatic crusade. What is at stake in the battle for the second-largest continent?

Pavol Beblavý

In late March, Kamala Harris visited Ghana, Tanzania, and Zambia, becoming the third high-ranking US official to visit the African continent in 2023. In addition to meetings with top officials, Harris also visited a former slave fortress, the site of her grandfather’s house, and, most importantly, announced a significant financial aid program for these countries. The diplomatic trip aims to build African-American relations, which have been neglected for a long time. Will it be successful?

Until recently, Africa has stood on the periphery of American interest and has been considered a relatively unimportant continent in terms of American global strategy. The focus was on the continent’s humanitarian, epidemiological, charitable, and human rights problems, with the intention of paternalistically solving them. Actions have focused primarily on direct financial support to countries through foreign aid or indirect investment through the World Bank. This approach was based on the assumption that Africa was firmly within the US sphere of influence, with Washington seeing not opportunities but rather problems in Africa, not understanding sufficiently the economic potential of the region, and attempting to bring its values to the continent to solve its problems.

However, in the early 21st century, China began implementing its ambitious economic expansion plan in Africa. Chinese diplomats were able to negotiate favorable terms and lucrative government contracts for Chinese businessmen in many African countries. Chinese firms have subsequently embarked on ambitious infrastructure projects in these states, including the construction of highways, railways, ports, and logistics centers. At the same time, they specialized in the extraction of natural resources such as timber, bauxite, gold, aluminum, and diamonds. This economic drive has long been supported by Chinese banks, which have provided loans to African states to finance such projects. However, the loans often carry usurious interest rates, leaving many countries in a ‘debt trap’ that further enables the growth of Chinese influence on the continent. Beijing is thus experiencing a boom in Africa. Chinese companies are making huge financial profits from these projects over the long term, Chinese banks are earning interest, and the Chinese government is gaining important allies and partners internationally. Behind this success is China’s absolute indifference to human rights, corruption issues, or working conditions in the African countries where Beijing plans to invest. 

In an attempt to compete with China’s growing influence, US President Joe Biden is therefore trying to change the current US policy towards Africa radically. In late 2022, at the U.S.-Africa Summit, he announced a new US strategy for the continent, replacing paternalistic rhetoric with an emphasis on cooperation. The new rhetoric describes Africa not as a problem but as an opportunity. It highlights African states as economic partners for the US and shows opportunities for US investment in Africa. Along with the change in approach, Biden also announced an ambitious plan to electrify the continent and many other programs. US interest in Africa has increased because the US is investing large resources in environmental technologies that require large quantities of raw materials, such as cobalt, nickel, and lithium. These raw materials are abundant in Africa, but their extraction is limited. As part of the global rivalry with China, the USA does not want these raw materials to go to its main geopolitical rival.

US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken and Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen subsequently visited Africa. This ‘charm offensive’ is now being continued by Kamala Harris. During her visit to the three African countries, the US Vice-President focused in particular on the theme of opportunities for mutual cooperation, stressing the role of these countries as partners for the US This new rhetoric and Harris’s personal connection to the region (she has several ancestors from Ghana and Tanzania) have so far left a strong impression in Africa. At the same time, the US has promised African partners financial assistance to fight corruption and other subsidies.

But the question remains whether this declared change in the US approach to Africa will allow Washington to compete effectively with China on the continent. In fact, despite the change in rhetoric, US policy to date has not changed that significantly in practice. While Harris did announce the expansion of financial aid to three African states during her visit, this move does not represent anything new compared to past US policies. The problem is that the US has so far been unable to deliver an economic program that would find support in Africa, unlike China. Beijing also has the advantage of not being interested in human rights issues in African countries. Washington, on the other hand, has long opposed, for example, local anti-LGBT legislation. Criticism of such laws, which includes sanctions, is unlikely to lead to their repeal but only to further antagonize African states, which see these steps as a paternalistic effort to impose Western values on them. 

Until the US can deliver a truly ground-breaking and sustainable economic plan for Africa, the situation will not change significantly, and Chinese influence will continue to grow on the continent. However, American success could bring fundamental changes for both Washington and Africa itself. Africa would gain quality American technology and know-how that would help it rise and grow economically. The US, in turn, would be able to tap into the vast mineral deposits essential for producing semiconductors and environmental technologies crucial in the 21st century. At the same time, limiting Chinese influence in Africa would be a major success in Washington’s global rivalry with Beijing.

Photo credit: Department of State

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