LUSAKA, Zambia (AP) — As Vice President Kamala Harris arrived in Zambia on Friday for the final stop of her week-long trip across Africa, she landed at an airport that’s twice the size and has glittering new terminals.
It is not a symbol of promising local development but a reminder of China’s great influence. Beijing funded the project, one of many that have expanded its presence in a booming continent rich in natural resources and often invoking goodwill among its citizens.
The global rivalry between the United States and China was a recurring backdrop to Harris’ trip, and nowhere was this more evident than in Zambia and her previous stop in Tanzania.
In addition to the airport, China built a 60,000-seat stadium in Lusaka, as well as roads and bridges across the country. Zambia is on the hook for all development with billions of dollars in debt. Tanzania is a major trading partner with China and has a new political leadership school funded by the Chinese Communist Party.
The developments have alarmed Washington, and President Biden’s administration is concerned that Africa is slipping further into Beijing’s sphere of influence.
Harris downplayed the issue throughout her trip, preferring to focus on building partnerships independent of geopolitical competition. However, she acknowledged that the US has limited time to gain a foothold on the continent.
“I think there’s a window, and we made a concerted, intentional effort to demonstrate our commitment and willingness to invest in a relationship,” she told reporters at the start of the trip. “I believe the window is definitely open now and I believe based on what we are doing now the window will continue to be open. But it will be a function of the investments we make from now on to generate the momentum necessary for this approach to last.”
China’s roots in both Tanzania and Zambia run deep. In the 1970s, Beijing built the Tazara railway from landlocked Zambia to the port of Dar es Salaam in Tanzania, allowing copper exports to bypass white-minority-ruled Rhodesia and apartheid South Africa.
Today, China is Africa’s largest two-way trading partner with sales of $254 billion in 2021, according to the United States Institute of Peace. That’s four times the volume of trade between the US and Africa. In addition, dealings with Beijing contain fewer exhortations about democracy than with Washington.
“Most African countries rightly make no apologies for their close ties with China,” Nigerian Vice President Yemi Osinbajo tweeted on Thursday. “China shows up where and when the West doesn’t want to and/or hesitates.”
Sen. Chris Coons, a Delaware Democrat who has worked on Africa issues in Congress, expressed frustration with China’s growing influence on the continent.
“We have gone from being the No. 1 trading or investment partner in two dozen countries to China being the No. 1 trading and investment partner,” he told reporters aboard Air Force Two on the flight to Ghana at the start of Harris’ trip . “I think our challenge for this decade is to address that.”
Biden has taken steps in that direction, such as hosting a summit for African leaders in December, when he announced he would commit $55 billion to the continent over the coming years.
Harris also made announcements during her trip, including more than $1 billion in public and private funds for economic development, $100 million in security assistance in West Africa and $500 million in trade facilitation with Tanzania.
However, there is skepticism about whether the US will deliver on its promises, and Harris was met with not-so-subtle hints that Africa expects more. For example, the presidents of Ghana and Tanzania bluntly said they hope Biden will visit their countries during his expected trip to Africa later this year, which would be his first on the continent as president.
By comparison, Tanzania was among the first countries visited by Chinese President Xi Jinping after becoming president in 2013. And after Xi secured a third term, Tanzanian President Samia Suluhu Hassan became the first African leader to visit Beijing.
“Kamala faces Chinese dominance in Tanzania,” the publication Tanzania Business Insight tweeted on Wednesday.
Ian Johnson, a former China-based journalist who works at the US-based Council on Foreign Relations, said Beijing presents a strong narrative to the developing world as a country that is rapidly building its economy and lifting much of its population out of poverty have.
African leaders think “let’s see what we can learn from China,” he said, adding that “there’s a certain intrigue in the way they’ve done it.”
Johnson also said China sees Africa differently than the US does
“We tend to see Africa as a set of problems — wars, famine and stuff like that,” he said. “But in China’s eyes, Africa is much more of an opportunity.”
Edem Selormey, who does public opinion research at the Ghana Center for Democratic Development, said the feeling is often mutual.
“China’s influence in Africa is widely viewed as positive,” she said. “And the US is lagging behind China in that regard.”
The difference, she said, is often “what local citizens see,” such as infrastructure projects, and “the US has been missing from that picture for a while.”
John Kirby, a White House national security spokesman, said the debt resulting from China’s involvement is ultimately sucking. He said African leaders are “starting to realize that China isn’t really their friend.”
“China’s interests in the region are purely selfish, unlike the United States,” he said.
It’s a sentiment that has sparked ridicule in some corners of Africa.
“America is playing like a great Uncle Sam trying to defend African countries against what they see as China’s encroachment on the freedoms of African countries through these loans,” said Tanzania-based analyst Mohamed Issa Hemed.
However, he added, “China is ahead of the US in many ways.”
Daniel Russel, a former State Department official who now works at the Asia Society Policy Institute, summarized the African perspective as “enough with the lectures” on China. “You have something we want. And they have it right here.”
When it comes to US hopes for Africa, he said, “You can’t beat anything with anything.”
Anna reported from Nairobi, Kenya and Meldrum from Johannesburg. Associated Press writer Evelyne Musambi in Nairobi, Kenya contributed to this report.
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