Analysis | Blinken tours West Africa amid looming shadow of China and Russia

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The result was not particularly auspicious. On Monday, Secretary of State Antony Blinken and the press pack accompanying him arrived at the main soccer stadium in Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire, at half time. The United States’ top diplomat, on a five-day swing through countries in West Africa, was presented with a personalized orange jersey in Ivorian colors, as the nation’s soccer team faced off against unfancied Equatorial Guinea in the ongoing Africa Cup of Nations tournament.

Then, Blinken watched disaster strike: In a shock result, Côte d’Ivoire collapsed against their regional adversaries, slumping to a 4-0 defeat and teetering on the brink of elimination from the continental competition.

Like his host’s national team, Blinken is trying to reverse the score line. As the Biden administration grapples with fraught conflicts in the Middle East and Ukraine — and faces a heated election cycle that is poised to suck up much of the oxygen in Washington — it’s also trying to show it remains committed to its partnerships in West Africa.

“We’re here for a very simple reason, because America and Africa’s futures, their peoples, their prosperity, are linked and joined as never before,” Blinken said Tuesday in Abidjan after meeting Ivorian President Alassane Ouattara, and later flying out to meetings in the Nigerian capital Abuja.

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Lurking behind Blinken’s sunny rhetoric are the clouds of geopolitical competition. The stadium where Blinken sat in Abidjan was constructed by China, a global economic juggernaut with a deepening footprint across Africa. Wang Yi, China’s top diplomat, was in Côte d’Ivoire a week prior, hailing Beijing’s “win-win” relationship with the country. Further afield in West Africa, Russia has opportunistically sidled up to a slate of coup-plotting juntas that have subverted once-fledgling democracies in Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger. The region’s troubled “coup belt” is populated by states that U.S. and other Western officials once hoped would become bulwarks of democracy.

Kremlin-linked mercenary organization Wagner has deployed in a number of countries in the arid Sahel region, on the front lines of brutal counterinsurgencies against a hodgepodge of Islamist and other militant factions. A major Chinese arms supplier is expanding operations in West Africa, while Beijing is instrumental in a sprawling set of oil pipeline projects linking the Sahel to the Atlantic Ocean.

Meanwhile, anti-Western juntas in Mali and Niger have compelled the United States and France to scale back their security presence. Blinken’s last trip to the region in March saw him call on Niger and then-President Mohamed Bazoum, a Western ally. The months since saw Bazoum ousted by a junta that staged rallies where supporters denounced Washington and Paris and waved Russian flags. Bazoum remains under arrest.

The shifting security environment is top of mind in Blinken’s deliberations, with the United States touting a $300 million program aimed at buttressing the region’s coastal states along Africa’s Atlantic Coast, including Benin, Ghana, Guinea and Togo, as well as $45 million in security assistance to Côte d’Ivoire, which is seeing Islamist factions make inroads in the country’s north. Later this year, Ghana will host a set of U.S.-led military exercises involving the special forces or commando detachments of the region’s militaries.

China’s growing influence, explained

U.S. officials downplayed the competitive aspect to the current mission. “Senior diplomats joining Blinken have said the trip is about concrete opportunities for economic cooperation, not pushing back on China and Russia,” reported my colleague Michael Birnbaum, who is traveling with Blinken.

“Many African countries, they note, are already rejecting Russian offers of support from military contractors,” he added. “China, meanwhile, has been less active with new infrastructure projects, mostly finishing those it launched years ago — although China’s imprint on the region is an inescapable feature of the trip, with Blinken’s meetings at his first stop in Cabo Verde, the island chain-nation off the western coast of Africa, taking place in the government palace also constructed by Beijing.”

The Biden administration also wants to change the narrative about its role in the region, emphasizing other priorities beyond counterinsurgency. “We’re really good at security assistance and we’re really good at going after terrorists,” Molly Phee, assistant U.S. secretary of state for African affairs, told journalists ahead of Blinken’s departure. “But if you neglect governance, economic development, factors like climate change, you can’t really get at a durable solution.”

This is Blinken’s fourth African trip of the Biden presidency. Last September, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin became the first American defense secretary to visit Angola, the final stop on Blinken’s trip. Vice President Harris and first lady Jill Biden have made their own trips to the continent.

The United States hopes to tout a major railway project to transport minerals from the Democratic Republic of Congo to an Angolan port, from which these critical resources can be shipped to Europe and North America. “The corridor helps the United States keep pace with China, which has invested tens of billions of dollars in Angola,” the New York Times noted.

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Analysts contend that the United States, for all its distractions, still offers Africans something more intangible than the shiny infrastructure proffered by Beijing. “Democracy is something that African citizens value deeply. That is something that China and Russia do not,” Oge Onubogu, director of the Africa program at the Wilson Center, told my colleagues. “For the U.S., I think our hearts are in the right place, but we have to be able to able to invest the time and the resources to show that the relationship and partnership is for the long term.”

But in world politics, there may be a thin line between what seems intangible and ephemeral. President Biden’s apparent decision not to visit the continent this term — despite a promise to do so — shadows the considerable efforts made by Blinken and a number of other Cabinet members.

“There’s no number of Cabinet-level visits that can make up for one presidential visit,” Cameron Hudson of the Center for Strategic and International Studies told CNN.

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