Blinken Arrives In Africa To Counter Russia Gains

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken arrived in South Africa on Sunday, beginning his trip to Africa that is widely described by the US media outlets as a renewed effort to bring back allies and a revival of Cold War-style politics. Although in an attempt to counter the influence of China and Russia, the US is unable to form a new club to achieve its goal of containing the two countries, considering the significant cooperation between China and Africa and Russia’s deep engagement with the region, analysts said. 

Besides, African countries like South Africa, which still have fresh memories of the Cold War and focus more on their domestic issues like economic recovery, are expected to adopt a more balanced and pragmatic stance by avoiding picking a side between major powers, they noted.

Blinken is expected to deliver a major speech on Monday on US strategy toward sub-Saharan Africa, according to US media reports. This is the second visit of the top US diplomat to the region following his trip to Kenya, Nigeria and Senegal in November 2021, and it is considered as “playing catch-up” to counter the growing influence of Russia and China in the region. 

Blinken’s trip comes on the heels of that of Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s trip to the region, who just wrapped up a visit to Egypt, Ethiopia, Uganda and the Republic of Congo. “We’re back to Cold War-style strategic diplomacy,” in which superpowers try to convince African countries that their narrative is the right one, and vie for their support, The New York Times reported on Sunday, citing analysts.

During the Cold War period, the West and the Soviet Union tried to gain allies or proxies in the developing world, and African economic and political development was hindered as a result, the US media said. 

Since US President Joe Biden took office in January 2021, he appeared to adopt some measures in correcting the disdainful attitude of his predecessor toward Africa, vowing to work together with African countries and expressing mutual respect as well as solidarity. While the White House announced in July it will hold a major summit for leaders from across the continent in December, the administration is poised to unveil a new strategy on the continent, aiming at reviving US engagement and competing with China and Russia, US media reported. 

Blinken will launch the US strategy for sub-Saharan Africa and lead a US delegation to the US-South Africa Strategic Dialogue, Ned Price, US Department of State spokesperson, said in a tweet on Sunday. 

Although South Africa has close ties with Western countries like the US and the UK, it is unrealistic to expect the African country to become a new part of the US-led West’s “friends circle” to counter China, Huang Lizhi, lecturer from School of African Studies with the Beijing Foreign Studies University, told the Global Times on Sunday. 

“South Africa has multi-dimensions in its identity. It has a long history of engaging with the US and the UK, leaving positive or negative legacies. At the same time, the country is also one of the major emerging countries, keeping active interaction with China and being an important part of BRICS,” Huang said.

On whether South Africa would face any political pressure over its close partnership with China and Russia, Siyabonga Cwele, Ambassador of South Africa to China, told the Global Times in an exclusive interview in June that South Africa pursues an independent foreign policy.  

“Our approach is that we believe in peace, we believe in resolving any conflict through peaceful means, and we believe in the supremacy of the UN system, which is governing all of us through agreed rules that we should all respect,” he said, adding that BRICS countries have common ideas about focusing on peace and growth.

Climate change, the food crisis and health will be topics of discussion for Blinken’s meeting on Monday with his South African counterpart Naledi Pandor, according to media reports. 

In response to some media reports which speculated whether African countries, such as South Africa, will “condemn” Russia’s military operation in Ukraine, some Chinese experts said rather than taking sides between major powers, African countries care much more about solving their own problems. 

“Africa is facing three major crises – the food crisis, financial crisis and energy crisis. Lavrov recently affirmed Russian grain exports to the continent, and that is what Africa needs,” He Wenping, director of the African Studies Section at the Institute of West Asian and African Studies under the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, told the Global Times on Sunday. African countries uphold diplomatic approaches based on their own interests, she said. 

Experts noted that as the governing African National Congress members will choose their party leader and hence the presidential nominee in December, the major focus of the political elites in South Africa will be on domestic issues and economic recovery.

“Also, many South African politicians still have a fresh memory about the impact of the Cold War, which makes them understand that they need pragmatic positions in face of major powers,” Huang said.