President Joe Biden has stressed a need for balanced partnerships with African nations, as the United States seeks to build stronger relations and increase trade with countries across the continent.
During an address at an opening trade forum at the US-Africa Leaders Summit in Washington on Wednesday, Biden said the talks were about “building connections” as well as a “shared future” for the US and Africa.
“We’ve known for a long time that Africa’s success and prosperity is essential to ensuring a better future for all of us,” Biden told the crowd of political and business leaders.
He emphasised that partnerships should be on equal footing, “not to create political obligation or foster dependence but to spur shared success”.
“When Africa succeeds, the United States succeeds. Quite frankly, the whole world succeeds, as well,” he said.
Delegates from 49 African countries, as well as the African Union, were invited to the three-day summit in the US capital, a follow-up to the first such gathering eight years ago under President Barack Obama.
The talks come amid Biden’s efforts to rebuild US relationships abroad, after four years of the “America First” foreign policy under his predecessor Donald Trump.
Washington’s competition with Beijing, which has invested in Africa in recent years at a level that has far outpaced the US, has loomed in the backdrop of this week’s discussions.
But Biden administration officials have sought to downplay that factor in its push to boost ties to African countries, instead stressing that the summit “is rooted in the recognition that Africa is a key geopolitical player”.
The talks nevertheless elicited a response from China, as foreign ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin said on Wednesday that the US should “respect the will of the African people and take concrete actions to help Africa’s development, instead of unremittingly smearing and attacking other countries”.
Wang said during a briefing that it is the “common responsibility of the international community to support Africa’s development”, adding that “Africa is not an arena for great power confrontation or a target for arbitrary pressure by certain countries or individuals”.
Al Jazeera’s Kimberly Halkett, reporting from the White House on Wednesday afternoon, said the US is concerned “about the influence that China, as well as Russia, has been able to make [in Africa] in recent years, particularly under the previous administration of Donald Trump”.
Biden also is doing “damage control”, Halkett reported, after Trump referred to African nations as “s**thole countries” during his time in office, sparking international outrage. “There’s some repairing that needs to be done in these relationships,” she said.
US pledges greater investment
During the past few days, the Biden administration has rolled out a series of pledges to boost engagement with Africa, including a planned $55bn commitment over the next three years, US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan told reporters earlier this week.
On Wednesday, Washington announced more than $15bn in “two-way trade and investment commitments, deals and partnerships” with Africa, including on key issues such as sustainable energy and infrastructure.
The US also signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) Secretariat, which the White House said will create a continent-wide, $3.4-trillion market.
“Trade runs on reliable infrastructure to support and secure resilient supply chains, and improving Africa’s infrastructure is essential to our vision of building a stronger global economy,” Biden said during his address on Wednesday.
He also listed companies that had made deals at the summit so far, including General Electric and Cisco Systems.
African leaders had called for more investment from US companies and agencies to take advantage of Africa’s vast land resources and young population.
“Instead of exporting commodities, the US should find an opportunity in investing,” Kenyan President William Ruto said. “They have the machinery, they have the know-how, so that they can produce for the African continent in Africa.”
Citing projections that Africa’s agribusiness sector will more than triple to $1 trillion by 2030, Ruto said US capital can help solve the continent’s physical infrastructure deficit to unlock growth.
Meetings on elections, conflict areas
Later on Wednesday, Biden will hold a smaller presidential sit-down with some of the African leaders whose countries will hold elections in 2023, followed by a White House dinner for all the leaders and their spouses.
Meanwhile, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has taken part in bilateral meetings with African heads of state on the sidelines of the summit, with a particular focus on efforts to resolve conflicts and political tensions.
On Wednesday, Blinken met Tunisian President Kais Saied and stressed the importance of “free and fair” elections in the North African country later this month, “as well as inclusive reforms to strengthen democratic checks and balances and the protection of fundamental freedoms”.
Lawmakers and rights groups in the US have called on the Biden administration to pressure Saied to stop what they describe as the North African country’s “democratic backsliding”.
Blinken also welcomed a November ceasefire agreement reached for Ethiopia’s conflict-torn, northern region of Tigray in talks with Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed on Tuesday.
“The Secretary urged accelerated implementation of the agreement and access to the conflict areas by international human rights monitors,” the Department of State said in a readout of the meeting with Abiy.
“Secretary Blinken and the Prime Minister also discussed the urgent need for all Eritrean forces to leave Ethiopia, which is to happen concurrently with disarmament of Tigrayan combatants.”