Africa: Blinken Recalibrates U.S. Focus in Africa

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s visit to Africa ended with a stopover in Angola. Analysts suggest Blinken sought to shore up transatlantic trade partnerships in light of instability in the Middle East.

While many observers see Antony Blinken’s fourth visit to Africa as an American attempt to outdo rivals China and Russia for influence on the continent, transatlantic trade must have been near the top of his agenda, according to African affairs analyst, Emmanuel Bensah:

“The reason why US is engaging Angola is largely because of the Lobito corridor. It is one of the corridors that Angola, through USAID, has been very fortunate in signing an agreement just last year to pump a lot of money into to transport minerals,” he told DW.

The Lobito Corridor rail link connects mining areas in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Zambia’s Copperbelt to the Atlantic port of Lobito in Angola. Logistical bottlenecks in South Africa have negatively impacted exports of copper and cobalt.

Seeking a security partner

Angola’s staunch opposition to the growing influence of M23 rebels in neighboring DRC has also drawn the US in to become a dependable strategic partner, as the conflict in the DRC threatens to destabilize the entire region.

However, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken must still woo the central African nation on a myriad of other issues. Historically, the former Portuguese colony has had close links with China and Russia.

“With China, the Angolan government under previous president [José Eduardo] dos Santos had a very strong relationship, especially since Beijing helped reconstruct the Benguela railway after the Angolan Civil War ended just over 20 years ago. This allowed Angola to connect to the rest of Africa and become a major player, especially in trade,” says Sanusha Naidu, Senior Research Associate at the Institute for Global Dialogue in Cape Town.

“However, the relationship between Luanda and Beijing didn’t progress as Angola had envisioned, and now is more sedate. Angola is therefore warming up to Washington.”

According to Naidu, Blinken’s visit is an opportunity to “to take over the space that China used to occupy.”

The strategy seems to be working: Blinken’s stopover in Angola follows a visit to the White House by Angolan President Joao Lourenco just two months ago.

And in September 2023, US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin became the first-ever US Secretary of Defense to visit Angola, “engaging on military modernization and regional security” issues, according to the White House.

But trade is also a major motivator for the US, which “has an interest in using Angola’s railway network and Atlantic ports to shore up global supply chains for itself — especially for the export of critical minerals of countries like the DRC and Zambia out of Africa,” Naidu told DW.

OPEC on the agenda

Angola recently announced plans to exit OPEC, which means that aspects of its future energy security are on Lourenco’s mind.

“Angola’s economy is at least going to undergo some restructuring, and having a strong partner like the US can certainly help,” Naidu explained.

Blinken’s meticulously planned agenda in Africa, however, goes beyond bilateral shoring up agreements and partnerships:

“The US is recalibrating its role in the region as a nexus of security and economic interests, since so much of the African economy is built around the Transatlantic trading space,” she added.

From the Congo River to the Red Sea

Blinken’s fourth trip to Africa is also being watched by other key players throughout Africa and beyond. Recent events in the Middle East,which have kept the Secretary of State busy, seem to echo back to various parts of the African continent.

“The US is being reminded of how critical that transatlantic trading corridor (with Africa) really is, with all that has been unfolding in the Red Sea in recent weeks with the Houthis,” Naidu highlighted, referring to the recent rise in attacks on ships in that region by Yemen’s Houthi rebels.

The subsequent drop in the use of Red Sea trade route through the Suez Canal has resulted in a significant uptick in transatlantic trade, using Angola’s ports.

US: From policeman to reluctant firefighter

But can the US succeed in bringing any amount of stability to Africa by simply sending its top diplomat to African capitals — especially at a time when many Africans are hesitant to warm up to the US due to its support of Israel?

“Blinken… knows that the US has lost its ‘shine’ as an underwriter of stability in the global context, so it needs to redefine its relationships in the region,” says Naidu.

“The US is no longer accepted as the policeman of the world, so it’s trying to be the firefighter of the world wherever there’s conflict. But also, the US knows that it can’t be firefighting in every region.”

Africa as a proxy for new Cold War

Yet there are too many proverbial fires on the Blinken’s desk now.

Beyond China’s influence in Africa, Yemen’s conflict near the Horn of Africa, and widespread African criticism against Israel’s actions in Gaza, Blinken is also having to address Russia’s interference on the continent, especially in the Sahel region. Yet according to Naidu, Russian influence through the Wagner mercenary group has fragmented.

Bensah however said the US is attempting to roll back the influence of Russia and China, a task he said is very daunting.

“They [US] can attempt to compete with Russia and China. But the BRICS is already emerging as a important counter to the United States. I think the current US administration hasn’t been proactive like the previous ones in anticipating how some of these things would play out,” Bensah said.

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