Vice President Harris to Visit Africa in Latest U.S. Bid to Exert Influence in the Region

U.S. Vice President Harris is set to visit Africa next week, in Biden administration’s latest bid to step up U.S. influence in the continent, where Washington has lost ground in recent years to China and Russia. Harris’ visit, which will include stops in Ghana, Tanzania and Zambia, will follow other recent visits from top U.S. officials such as Secretary of State Blinken and Treasury Secretary Yellen. At a December summit with the continent’s leaders, Biden pledged a $55 billion support package for Africa. The U.S. push to exert influence in the mineral-rich continent comes as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and escalating tensions between Washington and Beijing complicate global diplomacy. Both sides are seeking to win over non-aligned countries in places like Africa.

Although U.S. officials have urged African leaders to support Ukraine in its fight against the Russian invasion, many of them remain neutral, and some have longstanding bilateral ties with Moscow, including arms purchases.

But the greater concern for the administration is China’s economic clout over the continent. China is Africa’s biggest partner, with trade set to surpass $260 billion this year.

The U.S.-China rivalry includes a race to secure minerals that are critical to energy transition. Africa has some of the world’s biggest supplies of minerals critical for the development of clean energy industries.

Still, U.S. officials have so far avoided saying they are in competition with China or Russia. But the visits aim to show the distinction in approach between Washington and that of its rivals.

One example is the U.S. focus on democracy promotion. The Biden administration recently promised $165 million to support fair elections in Africa. It also warns the continent about the destabilizing role of Russia’s Wagner Group, which is active in countries including Mali and the Central African Republic.

“Bad things inevitably follow” when the mercenary outfit gets involved, Blinken said this month in Niger.

Despite the U.S. push, many countries in Africa have deep rooted connections with both Russia and China. Countries like Egypt and Morocco have close trade relations with Russia. South Africa has permitted Russian and Chinese warships to carry out exercises in its waters.

Another issue is the debt diplomacy. Harris’s visits will include Zambia and Ghana, which have both defaulted since the pandemic hit and are seeking to restructure debt.

For months, the U.S. and allies have voiced frustration over Beijing’s stance on debt-relief agreements for some of the world’s poorest countries. China, the largest creditor to developing countries worldwide, has held up the process in several countries, fearing it would set a precedent by taking direct haircuts on its loans.

Zambia, which has debt exceeding $17 billion, of which more than one-third is owed to Chinese lenders, is a crucial test case for what’s known as the Common Framework, a program designed by the G20 to bring Western and Chinese creditors around the same negotiating table. The concern is that a prolonged standoff in Zambia will discourage other nations from applying for relief under the program.

U.S. officials believe that African leaders are aware of the downside of borrowing from China and receptive to what the U.S. has to offer.

The U.S. is backing more Western lending to Africa. The commitment of $55 billion over three years that Biden made at the US-Africa Summit in December, the first such conference since 2014, included $21 billion in lending to low and middle-income nations via the IMF.

The administration also wants to increase private investment in Africa. At the December summit in Washington, Commerce Secretary Raimondo said she’s eager to see investment in Africa by the private sector.

The U.S. is pushing for a transition to clean energy, and African countries hold some of the minerals that are vital to emerging technologies, like lithium and cobalt.

China is well ahead of the rest of the world in securing a fully-vertical supply chain for electric vehicle production. But it’s still hungry for metals like copper and cobalt, of which China, the U.S. and Europe produce very little, while Africa dominates.

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