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The Biden administration is pushing a revamp of lagging U.S. relations with Africa, launching a major charm offensive over the year that has included a major summit of continental leaders in Washington, a parade of high-level diplomatic visits to resource-rich African nations and promises of vast private investment to come.

But analysts say the White House has thus far barely moved the needle when it comes to countering the trade and economic inroads and increasingly robust political influence that China has established on the continent over the past decade.

Beijing is out-trading and out-investing the U.S. across Africa by nearly 400%, putting the Chinese Communist Party in the driver’s seat of an increasingly Cold War-style competition for friends and influence on the world’s fastest-growing continent, one where many of the world’s largest reserves of precious metal and other natural resources are.

While polling shows most Africans favor U.S.-style democracy over Chinese autocracy, few dispute that Beijing has established a massive foothold by beating Washington at the infrastructure development game and outstripping the U.S. as Africa’s top overall foreign direct investment and trade partner.

“They are dwarfing us when it comes to commercial investment and trade,” said Joseph Sany, who heads the Africa Center at the United States Institute of Peace. Beijing may not employ the Western playbook, but for many investment-starved African leaders, that’s a secondary consideration.

“Even if China‘s investments involve opacity and exploitation, their increased commercial engagement has forced Washington to shift its priorities,” Mr. Sany said in an interview, adding that “the Biden administration is faced with the challenge of flipping the script of U.S. policy.”

Analysts say many Africans see the U.S. tied down by a war in Ukraine and determined to challenge China for dominance in East Asia. The developing countries of Africa, they conclude, can hardly be a top priority for U.S. administrations, whether Democratic or Republican.

Said Mr. Sany, “Instead of seeing Africa as the weakest link in a network of American allies and partners around the world, and shaping U.S. policy purely around aid, we need to start leading with trade and investment. But we have a lot of catch-up to do compared to China — a lot of catch-up.”

While he said President Biden’s overall messaging on Africa had struck the right tone, Mr. Sany warned that U.S. programs for generating the kind of private investment that can truly compete with China on the continent need major streamlining and attention — soon.

It’s a reality the Trump administration sought to address back in 2018 by pushing market-focused reforms at the slow-moving U.S. Agency for International Development to counter China‘s massive Belt and Road investments around the world. Some 52 countries have at least nominally signed up for Beijing‘s massive infrastructure financing program, which is involved in developing ports in Djibouti and Algeria, rail lines in Kenya, Tanzania and Nigeria, and dams and solar-power farms in Sudan, among other projects.

Then-President Donald Trump signed a law creating the U.S. International Development Finance Corp. that merged key private capital functions of USAID, essentially doubling Washington‘s fund for insuring private foreign investments by American companies to the tune of about $60 billion. The Trump administration also created the “Prosper Africa” initiative within USAID with the aim of increasing two-way trade deals with the continent.

Questions now swirl around the extent to which the Biden administration has picked up and run with the trade-focused momentum Mr. Trump sought to create.

In January, Mr. Biden dispatched Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen on a 10-day visit to Africa. Administration officials said the trip aimed to promote the potential for increased economic connectivity with the United States.

The treasury secretary made headlines in Zambia by calling on China to forgive billions in what U.S. critics say are predatory loans to the resource-rich nation. But there was little public discussion of how Washington is working to help U.S. private companies replace Chinese-government backed firms that dominate Zambia’s vast cobalt and copper markets — markets that analysts say are essential to future mass production of batteries and other green technologies.

Ms. Yellen’s trip was one of several recent high-level visits that Mr. Biden has said will culminate with his own trip to the continent over the coming year.

Vice President Kamala Harris toured Zambia, Tanzania and Ghana last month, drawing attention to the fact that 19 is the median age of Africa’s more than 1.4 billion people and reminding reporters on the trip that soon, “1 in 4 people on this earth will be on this continent.”

Ms. Harris announced more than $1 billion in public and private money for women’s economic empowerment, funds The Associated Press said are expected to come from a mix of nonprofit foundations, private companies and the U.S. government to expand access to digital services, provide job training and support entrepreneurs.

Linda Thomas-Greenfield, U.S. ambassador to the U.N., was in Kenya, Mozambique and Ghana in January, and Secretary of State Antony Blinken also traveled last month to Ethiopia and Niger on a trip that State Department officials said focused on a range of issues, including “climate and a just energy transition.”

The surge of high-level American visits to Africa in recent days is “pretty well unprecedented,” former Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Tibor Nagy recently told Politico. “And say it or not, of course this is about China.”

African leaders welcome the competition for new business between Washington and Beijing, but some are clearly wary that they will be sucked in to the increasingly hostile, zero-sum competition between the globe’s two economic superpowers.

Zambian President Hakainde Hichilema pointedly told Ms. Harris on her stop there last month that it would be “completely wrong” to hold his country’s interests hostage to the rivalry between the U.S. and China.

“When I’m in Washington, I’m not against Beijing. When I’m in Beijing, I’m not against Washington,” he said, adding that “none of these relationships are about working against someone or a group of countries.”

Calling out China

Critics say the administration should be doing more to call out China‘s more mercantilist approach to the continent, one whose single-minded focus on money hurts African recipients in other ways.

“Rather than focus on climate change as a broad concept, Biden could help Africans in an immediate way by focusing attention on China’s rape of the environment, offering remedies to help clean up Beijing’s mess, and then helping match American businesses more respectful of the countries in which they operate,” the American Enterprise Institute’s Michael Rubin wrote recently for

Pentagon officials warn of Beijing‘s efforts to challenge U.S. interests and allies in Africa with expanding military activities and other aggressive moves on the continent. The White House, however, was reluctant to mention China at the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit that took place in December in Washington.

The president headlined the historic three-day gathering of 49 African leaders by pledging $55 billion in economic, health and security support over the coming three years, declaring that the U.S. is “all in” on the continent’s future.

Administration officials said the goal was to “listen to and meet African aspirations” while focusing on “revitalizing democracies and strengthening the free and open international order.” With regard to China‘s courting of African countries, one senior official said the summit was simply “not about other countries and their engagement” on the continent.

The administration’s soft rhetoric has drawn praise from some analysts.

“In contrast with the Trump administration’s approach to the region, which largely saw the continent as a ‘great power’ battleground between Russia, China, and the United States, the Biden approach is considerably more balanced and recognizes that Africans live increasingly globalized lives,” Prosper Africa coordinator Witney Schneidman and Brookings Institution senior fellow Landry Signe wrote for Brookings last year.

Mr. Sany similarly praised the administration’s decision to play down the rivalry with China on the continent. “It shows they are listening to Africans, and Africans don’t want to be forced to make a choice between the U.S. and China,” he said. “Africans will tell you, ‘We paid the price for the Cold War. We know what it looks like and we don’t want another Cold War.’”

“It matters and Africans are appreciating it. I can say that based on my conversations with African leaders,” he said. “But we all know that as Americans we should be asking, what are we doing on the continent?”

‘We have to be more agile’

Mr. Sany emphasized that “Africa is home to vast reserves of strategic minerals and critical minerals that are necessary for the energy transition of the future.”

“We saw how Russia controlled European natural gas and reserves and how that control really affected Europe and U.S. allies in the world,” he said. “Imagine a situation where China controls the strategic and the critical mineral reserves in Africa, and all of a sudden you have a war in Taiwan, and China is sitting on those reserves in Africa — you can imagine the leverage China will have, right?”

America’s long-term challenge, he argued, is to promote more sustainable engagement than “the Chinese model, which is extractive.”

“[The Chinese] come and take the resources — the cobalt and the lithium — they take them to China. With the Belt and Road Initiative, the railroads lead to ports. That’s how they do it,” he said. “The American model is different. It’s that we want to extract, but do so while making sure that value is created locally so that it can benefit local populations. This is a very different model.”

The problem? The U.S. approach does not yield quick returns.

“We have to be more agile, more nimble and effective in order to compete with China,” Mr. Sany said, asserting that Washington must move quickly to “streamline” instruments that successive administrations have already established to channel investment into Africa, including the Trump-era DFC and Prosper Africa initiative, and the George W. Bush-era Millennium Challenge Corp.

Those instruments … have to be streamlined or more robustly resourced with staffing power so they have what is needed to work more effectively and quickly,” Mr. Sany said, adding that Washington should also be focused on “beefing up our embassies across Africa with multiple commercial attaches.”

“We need people at the embassies who understand not only development, but business, what it is to put together private-public partnerships, how to advise governments on how to prepare the deals, so the deals can actually happen and work. You have to make sure that American businesses are supported when they want to invest on the continent, so you have to have people who can advise American businesses and host governments so they can nail the deals. If you don’t have those people in the embassies, you can’t nail those deals.”

“Right now, I don’t see those movements. I hear positive rhetoric and I see good intentions, but so far we are still at the beginning stage of the paradigm shift away from aid-focused policy and toward robust economic engagement that African nations seek.”

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