China’s global influence looms over Harris trip to Africa
When Vice President Kamala Harris arrived in Zambia on Friday for the final stop of her weeklong 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’ 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.
Harris has played down the issue on her trip, preferring to focus on building partnerships independent of geopolitical competition. However, she has acknowledged there’s limited time for the US to make inroads on the continent, telling reporters earlier in the trip that there is a “window” that is “definitely open now” for American investments.
At a news conference with Zambian President Hakainde Hichilema on Friday, Harris reiterated her call for “all bilateral official creditors to provide a meaningful debt reduction for Zambia”, an oblique reference to China, but she stressed that “our presence here is not about China”.
Hichilema said it would be “completely wrong” to view Zambia’s interests in terms of a rivalry between the US and China.
“When I’m in Washington, I’m not against Beijing. When I’m in Beijing, I’m not against Washington,” he said, adding that “none of these relationships are about working against someone or a group of countries”.
China’s roots in both Tanzania and Zambia run deep. In the 1970s, Beijing built the Tazara Railway from landlocked Zambia to Tanzania’s Dar es Salaam port, allowing copper exports to circumvent white-minority-ruled Rhodesia and apartheid South Africa.
Today, China is Africa’s largest two-way trading partner, with US$254 billion of business in 2021, according to the United States Institute of Peace. That’s four times the amount of trade between the US and Africa. In addition, dealing with Beijing features less admonishments about democracy than with Washington.
“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.”
Senator Chris Coons, a Delaware Democrat who has worked on African 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’ 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.