NAIROBI (Reuters) – U.S. 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 U.S. President Donald Trump’s reported dismissal of member states as “shithole” countries in January. Trump later denied making the comment.
U.S. 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 U.S. allies in the fight against al Shabaab Islamist militants in Somalia.
He was also scheduled to visit tiny Djibouti, host to sprawling U.S., 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 has focused mainly on security concerns in Africa at a time when China, Turkey and other nations are ramping up diplomatic and business links.
Trump has authorised the use of more aggressive U.S. military operations in Somalia and the deaths of four U.S. soldiers in Niger last year shone a spotlight on increasing U.S. 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 has said he wants to cut the budgets for foreign aid and the State Department by a third.
“Africa is ready and open for business. And the Chinese have understood it and have been more proactive and aggressive in a way that it’s benefiting them,” Brahima Coulibaly, the director of the Africa Growth Initiative at Brookings Institution, said, commenting on the trip.
Acting Assistant Secretary for African Affairs Don Yamamoto told journalists on Monday that U.S. diplomats were becoming concerned about the high levels of Chinese debt some nations were incurring.
“The United States was concerned that 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 percent, 100 percent, and in one case 200 percent of GDP debt based on concessionary loans from China.”
China surpassed the United States to become Africa’s largest trading partner in 2009.