Photo taken on June 22, 2022 shows the White House in Washington, D.C., the United States. (Xinhua/Liu Jie)

by Xin Ping

BEIJING, Sept. 9 (Xinhua) — With much fanfare, this U.S. administration is seeking to reframe Africa’s “importance to U.S. national security interest” and “reset its relations with African counterparts,” as its recently released “Strategy Toward Sub-Saharan Africa” tries to resemble something of a paradigm shift in the country’s Africa policy.

It’s going be different this time, or so they say. But if anyone is keenly looking for markers of fundamental change in this publication, it would be yet another painful exercise. It turns out old habits do die hard. While evasive about specifics, the strategy is unabashedly straight on one thing: Africa should be a weight in an imaginary geopolitical balance against other nations, most notably China.

The message is served right under your nose — “China sees the region as an important arena to challenge the rules-based international order, advance its own narrow commercial and geopolitical interests, undermine transparency and openness, and weaken U.S. relations with African peoples and governments;” one of the U.S. objectives is to “counter harmful activities by the People’s Republic of China (PRC), Russia and other foreign actors;” the United States will engage with African partners to “expose and highlight the risks” of harmful PRC activities in Africa.

Also honing in on the theme was U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken when he padded out his hollow speech at the University of Pretoria with attacks on what he framed as “consequences when international infrastructure deals are corrupt and coercive; when they’re poorly built or environmentally destructive; when they import or abuse workers or burden countries with crushing debts.” No prizes for guessing whom he was trying to disparage.

With such geopolitical undertones impossible to ignore, the “new” strategy is not so much a “reframe” as it is a repeat of how the United States has viewed Africa for decades — an instrument for America’s geopolitical interests.

Invariably, this approach fails Africa. In the Cold War era, the United States used Africa to compete with and counter Soviet influence. It only induced more regional conflicts. Since the 1990s, Washington has been trying to fold Africa into a system it dominates, underpinned by ideas it says about democracy and good governance. The lengths it goes to are extraordinary — from inserting itself into Africa’s local politics, using social media to foment unrest to dishing out unilateral sanctions. For all the effort it claims to have put in Africa, countless Africans are worse off as U.S. foreign policy activities inflame political instability, regional conflicts and terrorist insurgencies.

In the new announcement, the signs of another big disappointment for Africans are evident. This is hardly surprising for a policy more about geopolitical rivalry than genuine solidarity. To begin with, the one-page “Reflections on Three Decades of U.S. Policy” does not say much before jumping to the conclusion of “these historic achievements.” There was mentioning of bolstering infrastructure, agriculture and the digital economy and fighting climate change. But how and when to get there are absent.

True, the United States has directed resources towards Africa, though accounting for their impact is a wild-goose chase — something the departed Mr. Princeton Lyman, the U.S. State Department’s revered Africa hand (may he rest in peace), also lamented, “Large amount of assistance to Africa seemed to have produced few results.”

But to be disappointed, one has to have hopes in the first place. To assume this for Africans, who know a geopolitical game when they see one, is naive.

South African Minister of International Relations and Cooperation Naledi Pandor was blunt during her press conference with Mr. Blinken, “I hate being told, ‘Either you choose this, or else.'” South Africa, she maintains, cannot be a party to a conflict between China and the United States. She also told Blinken that the United States was not a neutral actor and had itself done a lot of damage on the continent.

On the Countering Malign Russian Activities in Africa Act Washington is pushing at home, the minister warned this could punish African countries for not aligning with the United States on Ukraine.

President Yoweri Museveni of Uganda also pushed back when the United States attempted to rope Africa behind its sanctions on Russian oil exports. “If you really want to help the third world, why don’t you leave the third world out of these sanctions in a conflict where we are not participating.” The president insisted he did not understand the calls for Africa to “automatically” take an anti-Russian stance.

As a ploy in a geopolitical game, this sub-Saharan strategy is also set up for failure.

After all, one of its central slogans — “the rules-based international order” — is known to the developing world as a euphemism for order centered on the United States, dictated by the United States and serving the interests of the United States, a unipolar world in essence.

Its hoarse cries for transparency, the discerning African audience knows, grow from nothing else but a bitterness of not being able to eavesdrop on conversations, especially where things seem to be going well without U.S. involvement.

Its thinly veiled accusations against China have long been refuted by African countries who know from their experience that China treats them as equal partners and with respect; China works with them in good faith; they have a listening relationship with China and can speak their minds; they can count on China’s consistent solidarity in upholding the UN Charter and international law, cornerstones of an international order truly supported by the wider international community.

Confidence in China is further reinforced by the excellent cooperation Africa continues to enjoy with the Asian country in a world shaken by COVID-19 and the Russia-Ukraine conflict.

In November 2021, China announced nine programs for its cooperation with Africa at the 8th Ministerial Conference of the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation in Dakar, Senegal. Less than a year later, many demonstrable results span the fields of investment and finance, exports, agriculture, health, climate change, education, and peace and security.

Several significant projects have been completed, including the Foundiougne Bridge in Senegal, Nairobi Expressway, and Kribi-Lolabe Highway in Cameroon. Chinese imports of African goods reached 70.6 billion U.S. dollars in the first seven months of this year.

Mere hot air will not fool anyone in the face of commitments embodied in concrete and steel. If the United States indeed wants “a new approach” to Africa, here is a thought: quit reducing Africa to a pawn in your outdated game.

(The author is a commentator on international affairs, writing regularly for CGTN, Global Times, Xinhua News Agency, etc. He can be reached at [email protected])

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