Voices from the Arab press: Will Biden’s diplomacy succeed in Africa?

A weekly selection of opinions and analyses from the Arab media around the world.

 US PRESIDENT Joe Biden delivers remarks alongside Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen at a closing session of the US-Africa Leaders Summit in Washington, Dec. 15. (photo credit: Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)
US PRESIDENT Joe Biden delivers remarks alongside Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen at a closing session of the US-Africa Leaders Summit in Washington, Dec. 15.
(photo credit: Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)

Will Biden’s diplomacy succeed in Africa?

Asharq Al-Awsat, London, December 15

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The US-Africa Leaders Summit, organized by the Biden administration, recently concluded in Washington following three days of meetings. The US says it wants to build a strong partnership with the African continent, and that the summit aims to show its “permanent commitment to Africa,” while African leaders spoke about their aspiration to build strong relations “away from the politics of dictates.” It is no secret that a big motivation behind the summit is America’s aim of curbing Chinese and Russian influence in Africa, which has grown significantly over the past two decades. The Biden administration was keen to invite all African countries, including some countries that have reservations about its policies. Only Sudan, Mali, Guinea and Burkina Faso were excluded from the event due to the military coups that took place there. 

Africa is important in the context of the US-Chinese competition for influence. It is the second largest continent after Asia, with a population of 1.4 billion people, most of whom are under the age of 25. US Vice President Kamala Harris said last week that Africa is the fastest-growing continent in the world, and its need for education, technology, and infrastructure is increasing. This population increase implies a purchasing power of $2.1 trillion for the global economy. The question is, will America succeed in curtailing China’s influence in Africa? It certainly won’t be easy. China has become the largest trading partner of the African continent over the last decade. According to official figures published by Beijing, the volume of its trade exchange with Africa increased by 35% in 2021 and amounted to $254 billion, in addition to the fact that Beijing is the largest lender to African governments. This is at a time when the volume of trade exchange between the US and Africa is estimated at a mere $64b., ranking America fourth in the list of trading partners with Africa. 

While Western investments in the African continent seem slow and cautious and are often linked to political considerations, China is pumping huge sums of money into African countries in the form of loans to finance projects in the field of infrastructure – ranging from ports to roads and power stations. This makes it difficult for the US and other Western countries to keep up with the pace. What the US administration is now hearing most from African leaders is that they want a strategic partnership with Washington that is based on a more equal balance of power, or as Senegalese President Macky Sall put it: “A partnership without anyone telling us what to do or not to do.” Many African governments may find China comfortable to do business with; Beijing doesn’t interfere in their political affairs or raise issues of human rights and democracy. However, China can be ruthless in other ways, such as taking over national resources when its debtors fail to make loan payments on time. Beijing has a track record of seizing its debtor’s resources or national assets such as ports and airports, in exchange for debt forgiveness. In many cases, loans were squandered due to waste, corruption, and lack of transparency and accountability, which puts these countries at the mercy of their creditors.

 US PRESIDENT Joe Biden delivers remarks during a meeting with business and labor leaders at the White House, last week. The result of the midterm election considerably enhanced Biden’s credibility, says the writer (credit: REUTERS) US PRESIDENT Joe Biden delivers remarks during a meeting with business and labor leaders at the White House, last week. The result of the midterm election considerably enhanced Biden’s credibility, says the writer (credit: REUTERS)

In any case, China prioritizes its interests, which is obtaining natural resources and raw materials while expanding and diversifying its trade so that it is not heavily dependent on the West. Washington may not be able to keep up with Beijing in pumping huge sums of money into Africa without monitoring where it goes or demanding transparency, but it will apparently work on several fronts to woo African leaders. On the very first day of the summit held in Washington, the Biden administration hastened to announce a series of decisions that confirm its seriousness in building a new partnership strategy, including the allocation of $55b. for investment in Africa over the next three years in the areas of food security, education, health, environment, infrastructure, and renewable energy. To counter previous criticisms that many recommendations and promises are not being implemented, Washington appointed former assistant secretary of state Johnnie Carson, who previously served as ambassador to several African countries, to follow up on the implementation of these decisions and initiatives emanating from this summit. At the same time, President Joe Biden signed a decision to establish a presidential advisory council to enhance the involvement of African expatriates in the US and provide advice to the White House in a way that contributes to strengthening American-African relations and ties. This suggests that the US administration is counting on a major role for expatriates who come from Africa and who represent a large proportion of the African diaspora around the world. 

These steps are important, but are they sufficient to restore momentum to US-Africa relations? Much will depend on the implementation of these decisions, and on the steps that America will take to strengthen relations and develop trade cooperation and investments. The administration of former president Barack Obama had shown enthusiasm like that of the Biden administration and organized the first US-Africa Leaders Summit in Washington in 2014, on the basis that these summits would continue periodically, which did not happen. Relations deteriorated during the presidency of Donald Trump, who didn’t express interest in the African continent. In any case, international relations are always subject to calculations of interests. This applies to China as it does to America. If African governments want to face less pressure from outside parties, they must improve their use of loans and aid and allocate them to real development projects. As for the policy of borrowing to bridge the budget deficit, financing projects that are not well studied, or squandering money in the absence of transparency and widespread corruption, this is the disastrous recipe that contributed to the impoverishment of Africa and its longstanding political instability. – Osman Mirghani

China is preventing the Third World War

Al Arabiya, Saudi Arabia, December 16

The war that has been raging in the heart of Europe for months has been grim and harsh, bringing back bitter memories of the world wars of the last century. Unsurprisingly, there are those who predict that it will drag the world into a third world war, but these panicked conclusions are highly exaggerated. We have read and heard speculation that we are on the brink of disaster, but for practical reasons, this will not happen. In fact, what prevents the outbreak of such a war is one country called China. The outbreak of war on a global level can only happen when a massive military force that is difficult to deter decides to invade a fighting theater with its forces, as the Nazis did in World War II. In the past, we feared that Russia would be the country that invades Europe and ignites the first sparks of war, but it has proven its complete inability even to preserve the lands it annexed. Although Western support with arms to Kyiv did not stop, the Russian forces proved from the beginning to be highly incompetent and low in morale over a war whose legitimacy is being doubted even within Russia. 

With all this confusion, the specter of World War III would have existed if Beijing had decided to join Moscow in its war. The Russian-Chinese alliance would have undoubtedly led to hell. Let us thank God that the Chinese leadership is thinking of invading the world with electronic chips, not tanks. Beijing showed great wisdom and rationality and saved the world from a grim fate. The Chinese foreign minister recently said, dispelling the fears raised by Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, that we are heading toward a new world war, and that no one wants a new world war. The Chinese have been deceived by two parties. The first was Western politicians motivated by domestic politics and the desire for reelection, such as Nancy Pelosi, who visited Taiwan as a provocation to embarrass Beijing and push it to ally itself more closely with Russia. The second was the Russians. 

Lavrov tried using his diplomatic and rhetorical abilities to drag Beijing into a confrontation with the West, but he failed to achieve any of his aspirations. At the Shanghai Summit, the Russians came out with diplomatic promises whose value faded as the leaders left with their planes returning to their homes. Why did China eliminate the grim option of another world war? Why do its diplomats talk about the importance of defusing war and promoting peace? The reasons are practical and clear. Despite Moscow’s attempts to present a unified front with China, through things like joint military exercises and meetings between leaders, the reality is very different. America and the EU constitute roughly 26% of China’s trade, compared to 2% that is Russian. 

The Chinese rapprochement with Russia may expose it to sanctions, which would leave a tremendous financial cost on its wallet. We’ve seen this calculus come into play in the context of both the Ukrainian and Taiwanese crises. China is an amazing economic success story. The GDP of wealthy Guangdong Province ($1.8t.) surpasses that of Russia ($1.5t.). That is why it is in China’s benefit to maintain global stability. Beijing seeks to benefit from the current world order in which it has invested and doesn’t want wars and conflicts to undermine its global posture. Therefore, despite all bleak predictions, we will not see a new world war in the coming years, unless Beijing changes its existing stance. – Mamdouh AlMuhaini 

Definition of a touristic country

El Watan, Egypt, December 16

A country that boasts tourist attractions isn’t necessarily a touristic country. This might seem surprising, but it isn’t. A touristic country is one visited by millions of travelers each year because every place in that country is suitable for traveling. It isn’t a place where a specific town or site is promoted in magazines or publications; but rather a place whose culture, hospitality, infrastructure, and sense of safety extend nationwide. 

If you visit Switzerland, France, Britain, or Japan, for example, you can spend the most beautiful vacation without ever visiting a famous landmark. In these countries, you can walk down any street or alley, enter any restaurant, and have a great time. In these places, you have the privilege of drinking tap water from every faucet. You can hop into any cab. You can stay at any hotel. There isn’t a stratification separating tourists from locals. When visiting these countries, tourists don’t need to search for ancient castles or ruins, but can rather enjoy a stroll around the city, lunch at a local café, or a visit to the neighborhood park. Whatever is comfortable and good there is made first and foremost for the citizen; the tourist’s enjoyment is inherent in that. 

Yes, there are no special streets or parks for tourists. No extra work is being put to clean up the streets or clear the garbage from where tourists might stay. The governments in these places focus on making their citizens happy, and foreigners can simply come visit and enjoy it. Accordingly, I do not like to regard Third World countries as “touristic” if they do one of two things: The first is to put up a fence around their poor population, seeking to block their “habitat” from foreign visitors and pretending that poverty doesn’t exist. The second is to commoditize poverty. That is, presenting the manifestations of misery as folklore that may attract tourists and make them spend and pay money to local residents and employees, in return for filming among the rubbish dumps, ruins, and overflowing sewage water. 

This type of country is not “touristic” in any case, even if it has antiquities, beaches, mountains or lakes. If foreigners visit it once, they will surely advise each other not to set foot on its land again! – Osama Gharib

Translated by Asaf Zilberfarb.