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Blinken departs for West Africa as Russia and China look to leverage their influence

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken departs for a four-nation trip to Africa on Sunday as the Biden administration seeks to prove the US is a key partner on a continent where China and Russia have exerted their influence.

Blinken is slated to visit Cape Verde, Ivory Coast, Nigeria and Angola in a bid to show that Africa remains a priority amid a slew of global crises. He sets off on his third international trip of the year as Israel’s offensive in Gaza continues to exact a massive humanitarian toll; attacks by Houthi rebels in the Red Sea have continued unabated, despite a series of US strikes meant to deter them; and the war in Ukraine wages on, approaching the start of its third year.

Though countering efforts by Russia and China to exert power in the area is not top of Blinken’s agenda, the US’ two major geopolitical rivals for years worked to spread their influence in the continent.

State Department spoksperson Matt Miller said the trip is important, describing the African nations as “incredibly important countries that require US engagement.”

“We have challenges on the continent of Africa, but … we also have a lot of opportunities that the president has made a priority, and the secretary has made a priority,” he said Thursday.

Molly Phee, assistant secretary of state for African affairs, described the trip as having a “forward-looking” agenda.

“We think this trip will hopefully be very positive,” she said on a call with reporters Thursday. “I think it will demonstrate the advances that Africans have made that will contribute to the continued progress on the continent.”

Blinken is slated to discuss economic issues, as well as security, including the terrorist threat in the Sahel. He is also expected to discuss August’s military coup in Niger, which overthrew the elected leader of one of America’s top partners in the region. Blinken arrives in West Africa days after the military junta in Niger agreed to strengthen ties with Russia, which has a strong foothold in the region.

“We don’t have any objection with countries diversifying partnerships,” Phee said. “Obviously, if they chose to have a partnership with countries like Russia, that would be very complicated.

“I think if they just look west to Mali and see the increase in civilian casualties and the increase in security attacks since the junta government in Mali invited in the [Russian mercenary organization] Wagner Group, and kicked out the French – that isn’t a model that I would want to follow or I think most people would want to follow, if you were governing a country,” she said.

However, “the Russian presence has always been there in West Africa,” explained Oge Onubogu, Africa program director at the Wilson Center. “They’ve just adapted and figured out how they can take advantage of the opportunities now.”

Part of how Russia has been able to do so, she said, is by “exacerbating the frustrations that people are already feeling … exploiting the frustrations of citizens to some extent.”

“I think it is important that with this visit, the US government and secretary acknowledges the frustrations that citizens feel,” Onubogu told CNN.

Blinken’s visit to the region also comes days after China’s top diplomat, Wang Yi, wrapped his own swing through Africa, in which he also visited Ivory Coast.

Phee dismissed the idea that the US is trying to compete with Beijing in Africa, saying it’s the press “who frame this as a US-China soccer match.”

“We don’t,” she said. “If China didn’t exist, we would be fully engaged in Africa. Africa is important for its own sake and it’s important for American interests.”

“We want to highlight our response to African concerns,” she continued, adding that the visiting US delegation hopes to “look at a pharmaceutical company where we’ve helped support Africans develop their own manufacturing capabilities.”

Phee said the US has supported infrastructure projects, including a “substantial” US investment in a project in Angola called the Lobito corridor.

Still, China has invested billions of dollars in infrastructure projects in the continent, and “people are seeing China’s influence that way,” Onubogu said.

“When you go to Zambia or you’re in … Nigeria or Ghana, you look at the airports, those airports were also built through funding from the Chinese,” she said.

However, Onubogu noted that “there’s an opportunity for us to be strategic and not necessarily try to compete with China” but rather to “be strategic and look at our comparative advantages.”

The US can “be strategic in where we invest in infrastructure, be strategic on the values that we have, on democracy, governance strengthening programs, on our health strengthening programs,” she said. “These are areas that a lot of Africans recognize that the US has strengths in.”

Blinken is expected to discuss such areas of strength, including that health partnership and food security.

The top US diplomat, an avid soccer fan, may also attend a match at the continent’s biggest tournament, the Africa Cup of Nations in Ivory Coast.

This is Blinken’s fourth trip to the continent as secretary of state, and several Cabinet officials have also visited. Still, there is expected to be scrutiny around the fact that President Joe Biden has yet to visit the continent, despite a promise that he planned to do so in 2023.

Biden “remains serious about his desire to travel to Africa,” Phee said Thursday.

“I think many will view this visit by the secretary as just another one of those high-level visits,” Onubogu said.

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

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