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Vice President Harris embarks on history-making Africa trip amid US-China competition

WASHINGTON, DC - DECEMBER 13: U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris gives remarks at the African and Diaspora Young Leaders Forum at the African American History and Culture Museum on December 13, 2022 in Washington, DC. The forum is in conjunction with the U.S. Africa Leaders Summit, which is bringing together over 50 heads of state, government officials, business leaders, and civil society from Africa to strengthen ties between the U.S. and Africa. (Photo by Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)

(CNN) — When Kamala Harris steps off Air Force Two in Ghana on Sunday, she’ll become the first Black woman US vice president to visit Africa, marking another chapter in her barrier-breaking role.

As the vice president sets out on her first trip to the continent since her childhood, the weight of this history making moment is one her advisers say she deeply understands. The depth of the symbolism will serve as a critical backdrop to a trip that carries with it as much imminent diplomatic consequence as it does long-lasting historical significance.

Administration officials previewing the vice president’s trip said it’s a “future-oriented” expedition to deepen relationship, crafted to recognize that the median age of citizens of the continent is 19 years old and its population is rapidly expanding.

“I’m going to Africa mainly to talk with African leaders about what we as the United States are prepared to do to have our role in investing in the future of that continent,” Harris said in a radio interview on Friday.

Harris hopes to build on themes of African innovation and technology, regional security, food security, women empowerment, climate and democracy, officials said. And she’ll bring with her continent-wide public and private sector investments.

“The Vice President is visiting the three countries where the government (is) investing in democracies, specifically at a time where we know there is global democratic recession,” a senior administration official said on the call with reporters. “The United States believes Africa is critical to addressing global challenges. And we view her visit another opportunity to consult and engage with partners on our shared objectives.”

Harris’ visit fosters echoes of those by former President Barack Obama, who attracted massive crowds and the widespread personal embrace from regional leaders who tried to attach themselves to the political and historical moment rooted in the world’s most powerful leader having a direct bloodline to their continent.

But the geopolitical climate waiting for Harris is much different than when the last Black White House principal took office nearly 15 years ago. For all the hope of Obama’s presidency, many African leaders still voiced frustrations at the continuation of the long-standing sense that promises made were only marginally kept in a region too often left on the sidelines during defining international debates.

The fight to fill that vacuum has steadily evolved into a growing diplomatic proxy battle, with the Biden administration accelerating its efforts to secure sustainable African partnerships to counter the weight of China and Russia’s rising influence and Harris will be the highest-ranking Biden official to visit Africa to confront that challenge.

The high-profile mission will place the vice president on a diplomatic tight rope, requiring Harris to show African nations that the US wants true collaboration to amplify the continent’s potential and to avoid framing African nations as pawns in the United States’ larger geopolitical strategy, experts say.

“The danger is that we go there, and we say, ‘we’d like to talk to you about China,’” said Mark Green, a former US ambassador to Tanzania and current president of the think tank the Wilson Center. “It would be very hard to blame Africans, if they didn’t hear that and say, ‘aha, this isn’t about us, it’s about China.’”

The fraught balancing act was on display when African leaders converged on Washington late last year for the US-Africa Leaders Summit, where officials were careful to stick to public messaging that US efforts were more about offering tangible economic and security measures and meant to telegraph an positive vision for the years ahead.

Yet the implicit reality throughout the conference was hard to miss — and only exacerbated by the pressures created by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine that have hit lower income countries sharply over the last year.

After departing Washington on Saturday, Harris will land in Accra on Sunday afternoon. From there begins a six-day march through three countries’ capital cities, where Harris will hold bilateral meetings with all three top leaders including Tanzania’s first female President Samia Suluhu Hassan. In Ghana, Harris will deliver a high-profile speech to young people before visiting the famous Cape Coast Castle, a relic of the slave trade system in West Africa and beyond. And in Zambia, Harris will convene US and local business leaders to discuss digital and financial leadership.

But the issue of China and its influence will hang in the backdrop of nearly all of Harris’ closely watched engagements as officials seek to reassert US leadership in African nations to counter rival investments that have put the US on the backfoot.

A senior administration official said the US has made clear that, “our relationship with Africa cannot and should not and will not be defined by competition with China.”

“We’re not asking our partners to choose,” the official added. “We want to expand African options, not limit them.”

‘Tough love’ to combat China

Harris will see one of the clearest examples of China’s influence when she flies into Zambia. Air Force Two will land at the newly renovated Kenneth Kaunda International Airport in Lusaka, financed and designed with Chinese money.

The vice president’s motorcade will likely drive down roads also financed by Chinese loans and pass buildings with Chinese advertisements.

In the wake of the US’ absence from the region, amplified by former President Donald Trump largely ignoring Africa, never visiting the continent, and even rudely disparaging certain African nations in a 2018 meeting as “shithole countries,” other nations made inroads. China has worked to grow trade relations with African nations and has developed major infrastructure projects there, some with high interest loans. And Russia has expanded its military influence, including through mercenaries like the Wagner Group.

When Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen visited the rapidly expanding country in January, she called on China to restructure Zambia’s billions of dollars of debt. Yellen warned that the scale of debt threatens progress as China holds about $6 billion out of $17 billion of the country’s external debt.

At Wednesday’s White House briefing, the National Security Council’s strategic communications coordinator John Kirby put it more bluntly: “They get these loans — high interest, can’t pay them. China says, ‘Hey, bill is coming due. So, I guess I’m going to take this and this and this from you.’… African leaders are beginning to see that China’s interests in the region are purely selfish, as opposed to the United States.”

One former US official said Harris would be wise to parrot that message during her bilateral meetings.

“I think that there has to be some tough love given, which is that Zambia got themselves into this problem,” the former official told CNN, noting that it was largely the previous government that took the loans. Harris’ message, they said, should focus on trying to help Zambia attract foreign companies to invest. “They have to create the conditions to encourage people to come in.”

A senior administration official said that Harris will have direct discussions about debt with officials during a slate of meetings in Zambia and other nations like Ghana.

To prepare, Harris told CNN on Friday she consulted with experts and utilized briefing material when “thinking about the future and what that will look like in terms of the relationship between the United States and the continent of Africa. I’m very optimistic about what the partnership will produce as we continue to go forward in that relationship.”

And in those discussions, experts say Harris will have to convey the US’ sincerity of its long-term commitment to the region and that her previous promises that the US would be “better partner” for economic stability still ring true.

That promise is rooted in economic opportunity for the region. Current senior administration officials say Harris will build off remarks given during the Africa Leaders Summit in Washington in which she touted the US’ commitments to invest in innovation and creativity across the continent.

“By working together, we can unlock growth and opportunity that far exceeds what any of us can achieve on our own,” Harris said at the time.

In addition to her meeting in Zambia with US and local business leaders, Harris will meet with tech entrepreneurs in Tanzania and women entrepreneurs in Ghana.

Harris’ trip is the latest of several US officials who plan on visiting, or have visited, Africa. First lady Jill Biden returned from her trip to Africa last month. US Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield visited earlier this year. Secretary of State Antony Blinken traveled to Ethiopia and Niger last week, and President Joe Biden is expected to visit the continent later this year.

‘Longstanding connections between the US and Africa’

The “people to people” interactions will be a defining part of the vice president’s trip, a senior administration official said. Harris will visit a recording studio while in Ghana to tout the creative industry. And she will have a homecoming event while in Zambia. Though Harris is the daughter of Jamaican and Indian immigrants, Harris spent time in Lusaka in the 1960s when visiting her maternal grandfather who was on assignment in his role as an Indian civil servant.

Harris’ historic trip, as the first US Black vice president will come nearly eight years after Obama made his last trip to the region while in office.

Obama’s first trip to the region was met with great fanfare, in large part due to his father’s Kenyan roots. A senior administration official told reporters Thursday they anticipate, “tremendous energy and excitement,” for Harris’ trip. Harris’ husband, second gentleman Doug Emhoff will also accompany the vice president on her trip but will have his own agenda focused on gender equality. The continent’s reception to the vice president and her husband will be closely watched and likely judged against the former first family.

“I think the biggest challenge is going be the critics at home,” said Melvin Foote, president and CEO of the Constituency for Africa, a group that’s consulted on Africa for Democratic and Republican administrations for over 30 years.

Ultimately, the former president’s legacy in the region is mixed, due in large part to the crises around the globe that dominated much of his administration’s attention. Disappointment grew over what some felt was a lack of attention.

Professor Matthew Carotenuto, who co-authored, “Obama and Kenya: Contested Histories and the Politics of Belonging,” predicted Harris would likely receive “cautious optimism,” from Africans on the ground because of it.

“Certainly, people will be interested in her and interested in hearing from her. But I don’t think it will be received on the same way that we saw (with Obama),” Carotenuto told CNN in an interview. He added that if Harris were president, the reception might be different. “The power of the role is playing into this as much as her own background.”

Harris will tout her heritage when she visits the grounds of the Cape Coast Castle in Ghana, a slave outpost in Ghana where hundreds of thousands of Africans were shipped as human cargo to a life of bondage in the United States, South America, and the Caribbean.

Obama and the first family toured the Castle and its dungeons during their first trip in 2009.

Senior administration officials say Harris will use the trip to highlight the African diaspora, a group of communities across the globe that includes millions of African immigrants and descendants of Black slaves.

“We will always remember and teach all of that, that is about painful awful history,” Harris said in a radio interview on Friday. “But there is also a history that is about pride and the culture and the traditions that so many of us have inherited because of that intertwined relationship.”

At the Africa Leaders Summit, Harris announced Biden would sign an executive order to establish the President’s Advisory Council on African Diaspora Engagement aimed at providing advice and recommendations on how to strengthen relationships between Africa and the US. Harris’ likely emotionally charged visit aims to build upon that order.

“There are deep historical and longstanding connections between the US and Africa,” said Dr. Jannette Yarwood, a former senior adviser at the State Department and current anthropology director of Africa at Yale University. “It is significant that she is Black. It is significant that she’s going to this space.”