Blinken says US can benefit Africa amid rising Chinese influence

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US Secretary of State Antony Blinken is on his first visit in the post to sub Saharan Africa (AFP/Andrew Harnik)
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Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Friday that the United States considers Africa a "major geopolitical power" where it can deliver tangible benefits that reflect democratic values, seeking to boost US influence as rival China invests heavily.

Days before China holds a major meeting on Africa in Senegal, where Blinken heads Friday, the top US diplomat said President Joe Biden plans to convene a summit of African leaders.

In an address at the headquarters of the West African bloc ECOWAS in Abuja, Blinken made no explicit mention of China but said he knew Africans have been "wary of the strings" that often come with foreign engagement.

"I want to be clear -- the United States doesn't want to limit your partnerships with other countries," Blinken said.

"We want to make your partnerships with us even stronger. We don't want to make you choose. We want to give you choices.

"Our approach will be sustainable, transparent and values-driven," he said.

He said that other nations' infrastructure deals can be "opaque, coercive, burden countries with unmanageable debt, are environmentally destructive and don't always benefit the people who actually live there."

"We will do things differently," he said.

He acknowledged that many Africans were cynical.

"Too many times, the countries of Africa have been treated as junior partners -- or worse -- rather than equal ones," Blinken said.

"And we're sensitive to centuries of colonialism, slavery, and exploitation (that) have left painful legacies that endure."

But he said the Biden administration "firmly believes that it's time to stop treating Africa as a subject of geopolitics –- and start treating it as the major geopolitical player it has become."

Blinken, whose three-nation trip also included Kenya, promised cooperation on areas including fighting Covid-19 and climate change.

- Backslide in democracy -

Biden has vowed a new commitment not only to Africa but to democracy after perceptions that his predecessor Donald Trump was not focused on either.

Biden next month will hold a virtual summit of democracies in a bid to show solidarity amid a rise in authoritarian leaders.

In a tone he has struck throughout the administration, Blinken acknowledged that the United States was not a perfect model on democracy in the wake of the January 6 mob attack by Trump supporters on the US Capitol.

"Democratic backsliding is not just an African problem -– it's a global problem. My own country is struggling with threats to our democracy. And the solutions to those threats will come as much from Africa as from anywhere."

"We need to show how democracies can deliver what citizens want, quickly and effectively," he said.

Biden has identified China as the paramount US challenge of the 21st century with Beijing's rapid growth and rising assertiveness at home and abroad.

China has ramped up involvement in Africa in its search for resources and an infrastructure-building blitz -- and makes little fuss about democracy.

Nigerian Foreign Minister Geoffrey Onyeama, speaking Thursday at a news conference with Blinken, dismissed concerns about China, saying that Beijing provided needed funding.

"We would have gone with anybody else that was providing something at a competitive rate for us," he said.

"Sometimes it's a good thing for you if you're the attractive bride and everybody is offering you wonderful things."

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