In Africa, Kamala Harris Looks to Deepen Relations Amid China’s Influence
Vice President Kamala Harris has begun a weeklong tour of Ghana and two other African nations as the Biden administration hopes to set a new path for U.S.-Africa ties that focuses on collaboration rather than crises, a trip seen as a significant step toward revitalizing a relationship with Africa that was widely thought to be lagging in recent years.
Ms. Harris, the highest-ranking Biden administration official to visit the continent, will hold an official meeting and news briefing with President Nana Akufo-Addo of Ghana on Monday before traveling to Tanzania and Zambia, where she had visited more than 50 years ago to learn about public service from her grandfather.
Ms. Harris aims to reassure the United States’ African allies that Washington is focused on fostering innovation and economic growth in the region rather than having a singular focus on addressing corruption and violence on the continent, according to senior U.S. officials.
“I’m very excited about the future of Africa,” Ms. Harris said on Sunday, moments after she stepped off Air Force II in Accra, the capital of Ghana, noting that the median age of the continent was 19. She added, “That tells us about the growth of opportunity, of innovation, of possibility — I see in all of that a great opportunity not only for the people of this continent, but the people of the world.”
Ms. Harris will face the challenge of presenting the United States as an ally while fulfilling President Biden’s commitment to take action against foreign governments that advance anti-L.G.B.T.Q. laws and restrict human rights, even as there are fears about attempts to limit similar rights within the United States.
Such restrictions have been on the rise in several African nations, including Ghana, Tanzania and Zambia, and the White House said last week that it would consider economic penalties against Uganda after lawmakers there passed legislation that calls for life in prison for those who engage in gay sex.
“It’s an unenviable dilemma,” Murithi Mutiga, the Africa director for International Crisis Group, said of Ms. Harris’s task. “It’s a tough juggling act.”
Some African leaders have consistently reiterated in recent years that they do not just want lectures on democracy from Western leaders, but also more economic partnership, preferential trade agreements and access to finance at fair rates.
Those voices have only been amplified as the United States has called for greater African support for condemning Russia’s war in Ukraine and reducing the effects of climate change, and has sought access to earth minerals in Africa that are critical to its competition with China.
Historically, the United States has largely engaged with the African continent through “anchor states”: often large or financially powerful nations that play a vital role in regional stability. In contrast, nations like China have had a more expanded engagement with the continent, experts say, establishing consistent, strategic diplomatic and economic partnerships.
The fact that the first trip each year by a Chinese foreign minister is always to Africa and that Beijing pays assiduous diplomatic attention to even small African nations have helped to make China a key partner, said Cobus van Staden, managing editor of the China Global South Project, a research organization.
“That connection was built up over years and would be difficult to replicate in the short term,” he said. “It would take ongoing engagement across several U.S. administrations, which can be challenging.”
For U.S. officials, he added, deepening ties would entail meeting African partners where they are and working with them on key priorities.
Some African leaders are already celebrating Ms. Harris’s trip and, in particular, her personal ties to Zambia.
“You know she has certain roots in our beloved country,” Mulambo Haimbe, justice minister in Zambia, said in a video posted online on Saturday. “It shows,” he said, that “they are sister countries that want to shake hands on an economic level.”
Mr. Haimbe was referring to Ms. Harris’s trip to Zambia as a child, when she visited her grandfather P.V. Gopalan. Ms. Harris’s grandfather was deputized by the Zambian government to help manage an influx of refugees from Rhodesia, the former name of Zimbabwe. He also served as an adviser to the first Zambian president, Kenneth Kaunda, according to the U.S. Embassy in Lusaka, the Zambian capital.
“My grandfather would talk to me about the importance of doing the right thing, the just thing,” Ms. Harris wrote in her book “Smart on Crime.”
Ms. Harris has a delicate balancing act in the continent during a consequential period of her vice presidency amid expectations that Mr. Biden will announce his re-election campaign in the coming months. With Republicans expecting to increase scrutiny over the Biden-Harris ticket, Democrats have emphasized the need for Ms. Harris to assert herself as someone prepared to lead the party. Many allies have said she has made the greatest strides on the global stage.
On Monday, after meeting with Mr. Akufo-Addo, she will visit a skate park and recording studio to meet with local artists and entertainers. The next day, she will speak about democratic leadership and her vision for Africa’s future to an audience of young people in Accra before visiting the Cape Coast Castle, the headquarters of Britain’s 18th-century slave trade on Africa’s Gold Coast.
The vice president plans to discuss regional security, debt relief, the war in Ukraine and American concerns over China’s investment in the continent with the leaders of Ghana, Tanzania and Zambia, her aides said.
In Tanzania, she will visit workers from the technology sector, and in Zambia she will focus on climate resilience and food insecurity.
Ms. Harris is also expected to make several announcements on American public- and private-sector commitments to invest in Africa, a continent that is rich in the resources needed to address climate change and the rare earth minerals used to power electric vehicles.
While Ms. Harris would emphasize that the United States’ relationship with Africa cannot be defined by Washington’s competition with China, her aides said, they also acknowledged concern over ceding more ground to Beijing, which has greatly expanded its influence on the continent even as Russia, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates have also jockeyed for influence.
The countries the vice president is visiting count China among their top or second-top trading partner, far ahead of the United States.
In 2019, Ghana’s government agreed to allow China to dig for bauxite ore in exchange for multibillion-dollar infrastructural investments that included building highways. In a sign of China’s presence in the country, as Ms. Harris’s motorcade passed a traffic circle in Accra on Sunday where officials had placed posters showing her and Mr. Akufo-Addo, a People’s Republic of China placard signaling Beijing’s funding of the rotary’s construction was visible directly behind one poster.
In November, President Samia Suluhu of Tanzania met with China’s top leader, Xi Jinping, in Beijing, where they signed multiple economic and infrastructural agreements including one giving Chinese markets more access to Tanzanian agricultural products. Tanzania also signed a $2.2 billion railway deal with China in December.
In Zambia, China has gained notoriety for being the country’s biggest debtor. But Beijing has pushed back against the “debt-trap diplomacy” narrative. And President Hakainde Hichilema of Zambia has promised to build on “a special relationship” with China.
Since Mr. Biden hosted a summit for African nations in Washington in December, various officials have flocked to the continent, including Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken; the first lady, Jill Biden; the United Nations ambassador, Linda Thomas-Greenfield; and Treasury Secretary Janet L. Yellen, who said from Zambia that China was a “barrier” to ending the southern African nation’s debt crisis.
But for Ms. Harris, the first woman of color to serve as U.S. vice president, the trip provides an opportunity to deliver a unique message, said Elizabeth Shackelford, a former U.S. diplomat to Africa who is now a senior fellow at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, a research organization.
“She comes out there as a strong woman who has worked her way up through the system, who is a minority who has risen to the highest echelons of power,” Ms. Shackelford said. “It will be inspiring to many women and girls who see her out there in that role.”
Zolan Kanno-Youngs reported from Accra, Ghana, and Abdi Latif Dahir from Nairobi, Kenya. Collins Sampa contributed reporting from Lusaka, Zambia.
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