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U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and South Africa's Foreign Minister Naledi Pandor depart following a news conference after a meeting at the South African Department of International Relations and Cooperation, in Pretoria, South Africa, on Aug. 8.POOL/Reuters

In a newly unveiled Africa strategy, the United States says it will support an arsenal of democratic weapons, ranging from investigative journalism to independent courts, in an attempt to counteract the “harmful activities” of Russia and China on the African continent.

The strategy launched by the White House on Monday is the latest chess move in a great-power rivalry that has become increasingly intense in Africa since the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Two of the most senior U.S. diplomats, in tours across the continent in recent days, have been accusing Russia of sponsoring private mercenaries in Africa and damaging the region’s food supplies.

“Sub-Saharan Africa is critical to advancing our global priorities,” the U.S. strategy document says, citing Africa’s fast-growing population and its large voting bloc at the United Nations.

“Some of our long-standing approaches have become insufficient to meet new challenges in a more contested and competitive world,” the document says. “The strategy’s strength lies in its determination to graduate from policies that inadvertently treat sub-Saharan Africa as a world apart.”

The 17-page document says the U.S. strategy would help to build “open societies” by supporting democracy and transparency in a continent where there is “growing foreign activity and influence.” It accuses Russia of fomenting instability in Africa for its own strategic and financial benefit, and it alleges that China is using the continent to “challenge the rules-based international order.”

Early reaction to the U.S. diplomatic campaign was skeptical. South African Foreign Minister Naledi Pandor, at a meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken in Pretoria on Monday, complained of Western “bullying” on Ukraine-related issues, while the Chinese state-run newspaper Global Times published a commentary accusing Washington of trying to “bring the Cold War to Africa once again.”

In recent days, Russia and China have both provided vivid demonstrations of their growing influence in Africa. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov was greeted warmly in a tour of four African countries in late July, which gave him a platform to blame Western sanctions for the world’s soaring food prices. China, meanwhile, mobilized a coalition of loyal African governments to issue a barrage of statements denouncing the U.S. House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi for her high-profile visit to Taiwan last week.

Shortly after Mr. Lavrov’s visit to Africa, the United States responded by deploying its United Nations ambassador, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, on a tour of three African countries, where she accused Moscow of “hurting Africa” by invading Ukraine, bombing grain silos, capturing farmland and damaging Ukraine’s food exports.

“Russia’s war in Ukraine only makes an already horrific food crisis even more dire,” Ms. Thomas-Greenfield said in a speech in Ghana on Friday.

To reinforce the U.S. diplomatic campaign, Mr. Blinken is visiting three more African countries this week, beginning in South Africa. In a speech on Monday at the University of Pretoria, he said Russia’s war in Ukraine is deepening Africa’s economic pain. The war is forcing an additional 40 million people – mostly in Africa – into a new dependency on humanitarian food aid, Mr. Blinken said, citing World Bank forecasts.

Mr. Blinken said the new U.S. strategy for Africa “will not dictate Africa’s choices.” But he appealed to Africans to “defend the rules of the international system” by recognizing the Russian invasion of Ukraine as a violation of global principles that African countries have helped to shape.

“We believe that all nations should be able to stand up for the right of a country not to have its borders redrawn by force,” he said.

Mr. Blinken also accused the Kremlin of supporting the Russian mercenary troops of the Wagner Group, a private military contractor that has reportedly been implicated in massacres of civilians in Mali and the Central African Republic. The Wagner Group “exploits instability to pillage resources and commit abuses with impunity,” he said.

The new U.S. strategy for Africa, he said, is “rooted in the recognition that sub-Saharan Africa is a major geopolitical force” that will “shape our future.”

Too often, African countries “have been treated as instruments of other nations’ progress, rather than the authors of their own,” Mr. Blinken said. “Time and again they have been told to pick a side in great-power contests that feel far removed from the daily struggles of their people. ... The right to make these choices belongs to Africans, and Africans alone.”

While he was applauded by his university audience in Pretoria on Monday, it is unclear whether the new U.S. strategy will sway African governments, most of which have been reluctant to criticize the Russian or Chinese governments for any of their activities at home or abroad. Many have been appreciative of Russian weapons exports and Chinese road and railway investment.

South Africa’s international relations department, in a new “framework document” unveiled last week, said it welcomed the rise of emerging powers to challenge U.S. authority in the world.

The United States is “attempting to maintain its global pre-eminence” but the world is becoming multipolar and new actors are “now in a position to challenge the predominance of the Western powers and the liberal international economic order,” the South African document said.

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