US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson flew to Ethiopia at the start of his first diplomatic trip to Africa on Wednesday, seeking to bolster security alliances on a continent increasingly turning to China for aid and trade.
He was due to visit the African Union where many officials are still smarting from US President Donald Trump’s reported dismissal of member states as “shithole” countries in January. Trump later denied making the comment.
US officials did not release a detailed schedule but said Tillerson would focus on discussing ways of fighting terrorism and promoting stability, trade and investment on the week-long tour.
Tillerson was due to visit the east African powerhouses of Ethiopia, the home of the African Union, and Kenya – both key US allies in the fight against al Shabaab Islamist militants in Somalia.
He was also scheduled to visit tiny Djibouti, host to US, French and Chinese military bases.
In West Africa, Tillerson will visit Chad and Nigeria, both major oil-producers struggling to contain the Islamist Boko Haram insurgency.
Analysts say Trump focused mainly on security concerns in Africa at a time when China, Turkey and other nations are ramping up diplomatic and business links.
Trump authorised the use of more aggressive US military operations in Somalia and the deaths of four US soldiers in Niger last year put a spotlight on increasing counter-terrorism engagement in West Africa.
At the same time, key ambassadorships in South Africa, Democratic Republic of Congo and other nations remain unfilled, along with the continent’s top diplomatic position, the assistant secretary of state for Africa.
Trump wants to cut budgets for foreign aid and the State Department by a third.
“Africa is ready and open for business. And the Chinese understood it and have been more proactive and aggressive in a way that’s benefiting them,” Brahima Coulibaly, director of the Africa Growth Initiative at Brookings Institution, said, commenting on the trip.
Acting Assistant Secretary for African Affairs Don Yamamoto told journalists US diplomats were concerned about the high levels of Chinese debt some nations were incurring.
“The United States is concerned some Chinese loans were pushing countries back into heavy debt not long after they received debt relief from international financial institutions,” he said.
“We’re seeing countries at 50%, 100% and in one case 200% of GDP debt based on concessionary loans from China.”
China surpassed the United States to become Africa’s largest trading partner in 2009.