WASHINGTON (AP) — President Joe Biden is making his case to African leaders gathered in Washington that the United States can be a critical catalyst to their growing continent in the years ahead.
Biden on Wednesday is presenting his vision during the three-day U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit, an effort to narrow a trust gap with Africa that has widened over years of frustration about America’s commitment to the continent. The Biden administration is pitching the U.S. as a reliable and quality partner to help promote fair and democratic elections and push critical health and energy growth.
But this push comes as the United States has fallen well behind China in investment in sub-Saharan Africa, which has become a key battleground in an increasingly fraught competition between the major powers. The White House insists the gathering is more a listening session with African leaders than an effort to counter Beijing’s influence, but Biden’s central foreign policy tenet looms over all: America is in an era-defining battle to prove democracies can out-deliver autocracies.
That message was clear in Wednesday’s events: a Biden speech before business leaders from both continents, a smaller presidential sitdown with some of the continent’s leaders whose countries will hold elections in 2023, and a first lady-hosted White House dinner for all the leaders and their spouses.
The summit is the largest international gathering in Washington since before the start of the pandemic. Roads all around the city center were blocked off, and motorcades zoomed by gridlocked traffic elsewhere, ferrying some of the 49 invited heads of state and other leaders.
Biden has already pledged $55 billion in economic aid to African countries over the next three years, U.S. support for a permanent Group of 20 seat for the African Union, and the appointment of a special representative to implement summit commitments. Administration officials say more is to come.
The continent, whose leaders often feel they’ve been given short shrift by leading economies, remains crucial to global powers because of its rapidly growing population, significant natural resources and a sizable voting bloc in the United Nations. Africa also remains of great strategic importance as the U.S. recalibrates its foreign policy with greater focus on China — what the Biden administration sees as the United States’ most significant economic and military adversary.
All the summit-related activity got a rise out of China. Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin said the U.S. 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,” an apparent reference to China.
Wang said at a briefing Wednesday that it is the “common responsibility of the international community to support Africa’s development.” But he added: “Africa is not an arena for great power confrontation or a target for arbitrary pressure by certain countries or individuals.”
Vice President Kamala Harris opened the summit Tuesday spotlighting Africa’s youthful population — making a case that the continent’s demographics will inevitably lead it to become a key global player in the decades to come. She announced that the administration would invest an additional $100 million to expand the Young African Leaders Initiative.
About 60% of Africa’s population is under 25, and the young population is expected to grow to 80% by 2050.
Conflict on the continent was a primary focus of Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s meetings on Tuesday with the leaders of Ethiopia, where a fragile peace deal is holding in the country’s restive northern Tigray region, and the Democratic Republic of Congo, the eastern region of which is embroiled in violence involving domestic rebel groups and others supported by neighboring Rwanda.
In Blinken’s meeting with Congolese President Felix Tshisekedi, the State Department said he warned that cross-border military operations must be coordinated with the U.N. peacekeeping mission there, and urged the immediate implementation of a November ceasefire deal that called for an end to state support for insurgent groups.
With Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, Blinken praised the government for steps it has taken to improve humanitarian conditions in Tigray in line with a peace deal signed last month. But he also “urged accelerated implementation of the agreement and access to the conflict areas by international human rights monitors.”
Blinken told Abiy there was an “urgent need” for Eritrean forces to leave Ethiopian territory. Eritrea, which has sent troops to help Ethiopia put down a rebellion in Tigray, is one of only a handful of African nations not been invited to the summit.
Thursday is to be dedicated to high-level discussions among leaders. President Biden will open the day with a session on partnering with the African Union’s strategic vision for the continent.
Associated Press writer Matthew Lee contributed to this report.