WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton faces a delicate job striking the right tone on her seven-nation trip to Africa next week if she wants to compete against China’s growing influence.
The 11-day trip — Clinton’s longest as secretary of state — comes three weeks after President Barack Obama visited Ghana and told African leaders to behave more responsibly, warning that to receive Western aid, there must be good governance.
Pressing for good governance and stamping out corruption is seen as important across the continent, but Africa experts said Clinton must calibrate this message with investment opportunities and follow through on promises.
While declaring Africa a foreign policy priority, she faces cynicism over whether the continent really is a top issue for the Obama administration which has other serious challenges from the financial crisis to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“I really get the feeling on the continent that America and Africa are talking past each other,” said Bronwyn Bruton of the Council on Foreign Relations.
“There is a huge craving for investment as opposed to development and preaching and that is what the Obama administration really needs to get its hands around, especially if it is going to compete with China.”
China’s diplomatic and trade links with Africa have deepened in recent years, with most investments dominated by minerals and oil — areas the United States also covets.
Clinton’s top diplomat for Africa said the U.S. goal was not to lecture, dismissing talk of rivalry with China in Africa as a “Cold War paradigm.”
“I hope the United States is not lecturing anyone,” said Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, Johnnie Carson.
“I think it’s important to respect African governments and leaders, to work with them to resolve problems and challenges that they have, and to engage and be able to engage on these issues.”
Clinton’s first stop will be Kenya for an annual trade meeting between the United States and sub-Saharan African countries where Carson said she would discuss new approaches to investment and broad-based economic growth.
Walter Kansteiner, himself an assistant secretary of state for African affairs in the Bush administration, praised the approach of the Obama team.
“If they can kind of continue that theme and that honest dialogue with the Africans, I think more power to them. It is about time,” said Kansteiner.
Clinton has chosen three of Africa’s strongest economies — oil producers Nigeria and Angola as well as South Africa — among the seven nations on her itinerary. She is also going to Liberia, Democratic Republic of Congo and Cape Verde.
“All three relationships have really been neglected over the past eight to 10 years. This is a chance to engage the big continental powers and build a more robust relationship,” said Jennifer Cooke, head of the Africa program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Oil-rich Angola, in particular, is emerging as a economic powerhouse and U.S. attention could pay off, particularly as China’s influence grew there, said former U.S. ambassador to South Africa and Nigeria, Princeton Lyman.
The Bush administration had a largely hands-off approach to Angola and the country still harbors some suspicion over U.S. intentions as Washington helped bankroll the UNITA rebel movement in its fight against Angolan government troops.
In South Africa, Clinton will be looking to build up strategic ties, but Kansteiner advised her to take a much tougher stand with South Africa over its neighbor Zimbabwe and press hard-line President Robert Mugabe to move more quickly on reforms.
“I think we (the Bush administration) let Pretoria off the hook too many times on Zimbabwe,” he said. “(former South African president) Thabo Mbeki told us he was going to take care of it and he never did.”
Former ambassador Lyman said the challenge for Obama was to create a legacy in Africa that was distinctive from Bush, who was popular among many in the continent for massive U.S. investment in HIV/AIDS programs and in fighting malaria.
Pushing hard for democratic reforms was a decent legacy but there was only so far he could go with that theme and expectations were enormous that an Obama administration would bring more aid and trade, said Lyman.
Part of Clinton’s job, he said was to match expectations with reality.
Editing by Chris Wilson