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Politico.com: No one-on-ones yet scheduled between Biden and African leaders heading to D.C.

Posted by: Berhane Habtemariam

Date: Saturday, 03 December 2022

A lack of bilateral meetings is likely to frustrate visiting leaders eager for time with the U.S. president.

Joe Biden looks down in a thoughtful gesture.
 

Dozens of African leaders are set to attend a major gathering hosted this month by the White House, but so far they shouldn’t expect a one-on-one meeting with President Joe Biden.

Two U.S. officials said that the president isn’t currently scheduled to hold a bilateral session with a single African leader, even as the three-day U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit is set to begin on Dec. 13.

While such meetings could be organized in the coming days, including in less formal chats known as “pull-asides,” the lack of concrete plans stands in stark contrast to how the Biden administration has put together other gatherings, former U.S. officials say. It also could lead African leaders traveling thousands of miles to further conclude that the United States doesn’t care about their countries as much as China does — and that it prefers to treat them as a bloc instead of individual governments.

“We would not organize a summit with any other region of the world like this — and, as far as I can tell, have not,” said J. Peter Pham, who was a top State Department official focused on Africa in the Trump administration, citing the Biden team’s previous summits with Latin American and Asian leaders.

A person familiar with the administration’s discussions said some in the White House were concerned that scheduling any bilateral sessions between Biden and his African counterparts would create friction, since it wasn’t possible logistically to accommodate all requests. Around 50 leaders have been invited, and many would like to show audiences back home that they have a connection with the U.S. president.

That person, like some others quoted in this story, requested anonymity to speak about sensitive internal White House deliberations.

Calls and emails to several African embassies in Washington were not returned. But Burundi’s ambassador to the United States, Jean de Dieu Ndikumana, said in a brief phone conversation that African delegations remain “hopeful” that the White House will ultimately accommodate requests for bilateral meetings, even if they were short ones.

The African leaders are “crossing the ocean to come here,” the envoy emphasized.

This is the second such summit between a U.S. president and African leaders, and much of it will feature think-tank-like events on climate change, technology and trade at the Washington, D.C. Convention Center, but not every leader will have the opportunity to speak on a panel. At this point, the only real engagement they’re slated to have with Biden is during a leader-only dinner and group photo.

The first of these U.S.-based summits was held in 2014 during President Barack Obama’s tenure. Obama, too, didn’t pre-schedule bilateral sessions during the gathering because of the same logistical hurdles, drawing questions about his commitment to the continent. It was not immediately clear if Obama ultimately sat down for any bilateral sessions, and several officials who worked for him at the time either didn’t recall or could not be reached.

The Biden administration is upfront about its belief that America’s biggest long-term rival for global power is China, but China has made personalized high-level engagement with African countries much more of a hallmark of its diplomacy.

For three decades, the Chinese foreign minister’s first overseas trip has been to an African country. And since 2000 Beijing has super-charged engagement through its Forum on China-Africa Cooperation, a multilateral development and investment platform complete with head of state summits every three years. At those summits, Chinese President Xi Jinping holds bilateral meetings with at least some if not all of his counterparts during or around the event, according to reports from Chinese state-controlled media and other news outlets.

“I think it is a serious missed opportunity when the American president does not do this,” said David Shinn, the former U.S. ambassador to Ethiopia with extensive experience across Africa.

China is the African continent’s biggest trading partner and bilateral trade hit a record high of $254 billion last year. The U.S. — sub-Saharan Africa’s fourth largest trading partner — recorded a more modest $64 billion in bilateral trade in 2021. And Beijing’s move this month to lift tariffs on 98 percent of imports from Africa’s 10 least developed economies will widen that disparity.

The challenge posed by China is even more pronounced now than under Obama, who nonetheless tried to increase America’s focus on Asia as a whole. In between Obama and Biden was President Donald Trump, who denigrated African countries and barred many of their citizens from visiting the United States.

Biden doesn’t neglect African issues, but he has been much more focused on Europe throughout his time in office, primarily due to Russia’s war on Ukraine. He has spent far more time in meetings and on calls with European leaders than any other part of the world, with Africa usually at the bottom of the list.

Failing to allocate the time for face-to-face meetings deprives Biden of an opportunity to leverage that contact with African leaders to foster good will in countries where China is the dominant foreign patron.

“It is a major boost for African heads of state to splash their photos with the U.S. president on hometown media,” said Tibor Nagy, former assistant secretary of State for African Affairs.

The summit will not necessarily be a bust for those in attendance, who can expect meetings with other top U.S. officials.

“Each delegation will have extensive opportunities for high-level engagement through plenary discussions, the head of state dinner and side meetings,” National Security Council spokesperson Adrienne Watson said, adding there will be other engagements during the three days. Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris, Secretary of State Antony Blinken and other senior U.S. officials “look forward to meaningful conversations with all the heads of delegation across the various sessions.”

And like at other similar events, African officials will find time to meet with business leaders, civil society groups, diaspora members and engage in bilateral meetings among themselves.

But other than the dinner, what African leaders most crave — one-on-one face-time and a sense of real engagement with Biden — isn’t currently on the menu.

“Why would African chiefs travel here if they don’t get time with Joe Biden?” Nagy asked.

Ryan Heath contributed to this report.


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