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The U.S.-Africa leaders summit begins, eight years after the first one

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit opened today. Fifty heads of state and various delegations are gathering here in Washington. President Biden is hoping to reset relations with the leaders of a continent who are also being heavily courted by countries like China and Russia. NPR's Michele Kelemen was covering it for us. Hey, Michele.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Hi there, Ari.

SHAPIRO: It's been eight years since the last time it was held in D.C., when President Obama invited African leaders to the White House. What took so long to invite them back?

KELEMEN: Well, to be fair, COVID has been a big problem. We even had to get COVID tests to get into the convention center today.

SHAPIRO: I see you got your bracelet there - wristband.

KELEMEN: Exactly, still on. And up to now, the administration has really been focused on its policy toward China. Now, it is competing for influence with China in Africa, though secretary of state, Antony Blinken, frames it a bit differently. Take a listen.

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ANTONY BLINKEN: This is also not about a competition with others. This is not about saying to our friends and partners, you have to choose. This is about offering a genuine choice, offering a genuine partnership, and hopefully together building a race to the top, not a race to the bottom.

KELEMEN: You know, he's gone on two trips to Africa so far. I was on both of those and heard him make this case repeatedly, talking about partnerships, investments in health and clean energy. Those are the kinds of things that the administration is focused on this week.

SHAPIRO: And what are the hopes of some of the African leaders?

KELEMEN: Well, you know, they come with their own individual agendas, of course. But Zambia's president, Hakainde Hichilema, talked about one of the overarching goals when he addressed the Council on Foreign Relations. He wants Africa to have a real seat at the table. Take a listen.

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PRESIDENT HAKAINDE HICHILEMA: One point four billion people have no voice in the Security Council? That's right. I think we agreed on this issue as Africans. We believe Africa must have a seat at the table of the G-20. We think so, and rightly so. It should be G-21 at least.

KELEMEN: So South Africa is part of the G-20, but the idea now is to have the African Union join to be that 21st to give Africans across the continent more of a voice. And President Biden, who speaks tomorrow, does support this. The other idea, of course, is Security Council reform, which has been, you know, talked about forever.

SHAPIRO: The U.S. talks about engaging with Africa as equals, but how much of this is really about offsetting the influence of China or of Russia on the continent?

KELEMEN: Well, it is a big part of it. I mean, you heard what Blinken had to say, but just before he spoke, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin warned that same panel that China has an expanding footprint in Africa and that it's expanding that footprint on a daily basis. He called that troubling. He also said that Russia continues to peddle cheap weapons and employ mercenaries - those were his words - and he called that destabilizing. African leaders have really made clear, though, that they don't want to be pawns in some kind of new Cold War. They rely on food and fertilizer from Russia. And China, of course, has made massive investments that they need in infrastructure projects on the continent.

SHAPIRO: It seems like every summit has some sort of awkward diplomatic moment or funny encounter. Anything to report from this one?

KELEMEN: Well, so far, no. I mean, the president hasn't arranged any one-on-ones. And I'm sure there's going to be a lot of leaders that have come here that are going to seek out face time with him. And there are the protesters. I saw some of them today against the leaders of Ethiopia and Uganda, though the protesters are very far away. There are massive security barricades for blocks around the convention center. So they're really being kept at bay.

SHAPIRO: And traffic all over Washington, D.C., as a result. NPR's Michele Kelemen. Thank you.

KELEMEN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michele Kelemen
Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.