2 February 2024

Un brand new airport, built with the backing of Chinese loans. Flying away on Saturday 1er April from Lusaka, the capital of Zambia, this is perhaps the last image that the American vice-president, Kamala Harris, took with her. During her tour of Africa, which also took her to Ghana and Tanzania, Mme Harris kept praising the ” creativity “ of the continent, while calling for the foundation of a new ” partnership “. But these enthusiastic formulas should not hide the geostrategic background of the trip: that of an all-out competition between the United States and China, of which Africa is one of the battlegrounds. Even more at a time when the Russian-Ukrainian conflict is leading to the sedimentation of antagonistic blocks.

Also read the column: “After twenty years, Chinafrica’s “success story” has problematic consequences”

On the mainland, Beijing has a clear lead. The American vice-president was able to see this in Zambia, where Chinese companies have built at all costs, over the past fifteen years, roads, bridges, terminals, stadiums… The same is true in a good part of the region. In two decades, China’s trade with Africa has increased nearly thirty-fold. They are now four times greater than those of the United States with African countries.

China has thus managed to secure its access to the strategic resources with which Africa’s subsoil is richly endowed: oil in Gabon or Angola, bauxite (for aluminium) in Guinea, copper in Zambia, uranium in Namibia, etc. And, increasingly, cobalt and lithium, these crucial raw materials for the energy transition and the development of electric cars. In the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), which provides more than two-thirds of the world’s cobalt production, almost all the mines have already come under Chinese control.

Catch up

Joe Biden’s administration is worried about it and is trying to regain control. The proof with the memorandum of understanding signed in December 2022 with the DRC and Zambia. The agreement aims to develop in these two countries a complete value chain around batteries for electric vehicles, from the extraction of minerals to industrial manufacturing. All this, it is argued in Washington, according to a logic of accompaniment and not – follow my gaze – of pure exploitation.

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With the end of the Trump era, the ties indeed seem to be able to tighten between the United States and Africa. After years marked by disinterest and insults – the former American president had gone so far as to call his African partners “shitty country” –, his successor bent over backwards to make up for lost time. Since the beginning of the year, preceding Kamala Harris, four officials have already been dispatched to the continent: the American ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the secretary of the Treasury, Janet Yellen, the first lady , Jill Biden, and Secretary of State Antony Blinken. The president, Joe Biden, has hinted that he could be next in line.

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