China's global influence looms over Kamala Harris trip to Africa

MAR 31, 2023 LISTEN

When Vice President Kamala Harris arrived in Zambia on Friday for the final stop of her week-long trip across Africa, she touched down at an airport that's doubled in size and features glittering new terminals.

Rather than a symbol of promising local development, it's a reminder of China's deep influence. Beijing financed the project, one of many that has expanded its footprint on a booming continent that's rich in natural resources, often generating goodwill among its citizens.

The global rivalry between the United States and China has been a recurring backdrop for Harris's journey, and nowhere has that been more apparent than Zambia and her previous stop in Tanzania.

Besides the airport, China built a 60,000-seat stadium in Lusaka, plus roads and bridges around the country. Zambia is on the hook for all of the development with billions of dollars in debt. Tanzania is a major trading partner with China, and it has a new political leadership school funded by the Chinese Communist Party.

The developments have alarmed Washington, and President Joe Biden's administration is worried that Africa is slipping further into Beijing's sphere of influence.

'Champion of democracy'

Harris has played down the issue on her trip, preferring to focus on building partnerships independent of geopolitical competition.

On Thursday she unveiled an initiative to expand trade with Tanzania as she hailed the leader of the East African nation as a "champion" of democracy.

She also said EXIM Bank, the US government credit agency, would sign a memorandum of understanding to facilitate up to $500 million in exports to Tanzania covering transport, infrastructure, digital technology and clean energy projects.

"On the subject of economic growth, good governance delivers predictability, stability and rules which businesses need to invest," Harris said at a press briefing alongside President Samia Suluhu Hassan.

Harris described Hassan, Tanzania's first female president who has been rolling back the authoritarian policies of her late predecessor John Magufuli, as a "champion" of democracy.

Hassan described their meeting as a "historic milestone" and referred to Harris, the first Black person and first woman to be elected US vice presidenet, as a "sister".

Counter Russia and China

Harris is on a three-nation trip to Africa, the latest push by the United States to deepen its engagement with the continent to counter the growing influence of China and Russia.

Tanzania has remained neutral over Russia's war in Ukraine, abstaining in UN votes against Moscow and calling for the conflict to be resolved through diplomatic means.

And in November, Hassan visited Beijing and held talks with Chinese President Xi Jinping.

“Most African countries are rightly unapologetic about their close ties to China,” Nigeria's vice president, Yemi Osinbajo, tweeted on Thursday.

“China shows up where and when the West will not and/or are reluctant.”

Sen. Chris Coons, a Delaware Democrat who has worked on Africa issues in Congress, expressed frustration over China's growing influence on the continent.

“We switched from being the No. 1 trade partner or the No. 1 investment partner in two dozen countries, to China being the No. 1 trade and investment partner,” he told reporters aboard Air Force Two on the flight to Ghana at the beginning of Harris's trip.

“I think our challenge for this decade is to address that.”

Biden has been taking steps toward that, such as hosting a summit for African leaders in December, when he announced that he wants to commit $55 billion to the continent in the coming years.

Women's empowerment

On Thursday, Harris also laid a wreath at a memorial commemorating the August 1998 bombing of the US embassy in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania's economic hub.

The almost simultaneous attacks by Al-Qaeda in Tanzania and the US embassy in Kenya's capital Nairobi left more than 200 people dead and more than 5,000 wounded.

Harris commended the government for its "transparent response" to an outbreak of the Marburg haemorrhagic fever which has killed five people in Tanzania, noting that USAID is providing $1.3 million to help.

As she wrapped up the first leg of her trip in Ghana on Wednesday, Harris announced an initiative of more than $1 billion to improve women's empowerment in Africa.

In a speech in Ghana's capital Accra on Tuesday, she noted three areas of focus Washington believes could benefit from more investments: women's empowerment, the digital economy and good governance and democracy.

"We are 'all in' on Africa," she added, repeating US President Joe Biden's declaration at a US-Africa leaders' summit last year.

(with wires)