June 20, 2024

Why Secretary Blinken is traveling to South Africa, DRC and Rwanda from August 7 through 12

Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken meets with Senegalese Foreign Minister Aissata Tall Sall at the U.S. Department of State in Washington, D.C., on June 17, 2022. [State Department Photo by Ron Przysucha/
Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken meets with Senegalese Foreign Minister Aissata Tall Sall at the U.S. Department of State in Washington, D.C., on June 17, 2022. [State Department Photo by Ron Przysucha/

The United States Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Mary Catherine Phee has explained in details why Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken is traveling to South Africa, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Rwanda from August 7th through 12th, asserting that the three African nations are significant players on the continent and across the globe.

Catherine Phee and East Asian and Pacific Affairs Assistant Secretary Daniel J. Kritenbrink spoke with reporters via teleconference on Friday, July 29, to preview Blinken’s upcoming travel to Cambodia, the Philippines, South Africa, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Rwanda from August 2 through 12.

Blinken will travel to South Africa August 7-9, the Democratic Republic of the Congo on August 9-10 and Rwanda on August 10-12. It will be his second official trip to Africa since he was sworn into office last year.

Secretary Blinken will use this trip to launch the U.S. Strategy for Sub-Saharan Africa and strengthen ties with African nations, as the battle for influence similar to Cold War era rages on the continent between the United States, China, Russia and the European Union. The announcement of his trip on Friday morning followed similar visits by Russian, French, and other American officials, who have been crisscrossing the continent to win hearts and minds amid the war in Ukraine and a global food crisis.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and French President Emmanuel Macron visited several African nations last week, a week after Samantha Power, the Administrator of the U.S. Agency for International development returned from the continent. The U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield announced last week that she will be traveling to Ghana and Uganda this week. The United States Special Envoy for the Horn of Africa (SEHOA) Michael Hammer has also been traveling to Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Ethiopia July 24-August 1 to help forge a diplomatic resolution to issues related to the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) as well as the devastating crisis in Tigray.

“In South Africa, the Secretary will lead the U.S. delegation to the U.S.-South Africa Strategic Dialogue. This dialogue will focus on health, environment, trade and investment, and infrastructure, priorities for both countries. Given South Africa’s leadership role, it’s an ideal location for the Secretary to deliver a speech announcing and describing the U.S. strategy toward sub-Saharan Africa,” Catherine Phee told reporters on Friday.

She added, “In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Secretary will meet with senior government officials as well as members of civil society to discuss efforts to hold peaceful, on-time free and fair elections in 2023. He will want to hear the Congolese perspective about regional efforts to address the role of armed groups in eastern Congo and the recent spike in violence, including attacks against MONUSCO peacekeepers.

“In both the DRC and Rwanda, the Secretary will highlight the need for respect for territorial integrity and explore how the United States can support efforts to reduce tensions. In Kigali, he looks forward to the opportunity to meet President Kagame for the first time since he became Secretary of State to discuss a range of national and regional issues. He will raise the case of Paul Rusesabagina, whom the Secretary has determined has been wrongfully detained.

“At each stop, he will seek an exchange on the importance of democracy, good governance, and respect for human rights. As you know, these are longstanding U.S. values that are part of all of our discussions, as Dan just described as well.

“The Secretary is really interested in exploring how we can broaden economic prosperity. As you know, we’re committed to contributing to efforts to build Africa’s self-sufficiency and resilience and to promote inclusive development. To that end, we’re working with African governments and businesses, entrepreneurs, civil society, the U.S. private sector, and IFIs and MDBs to accelerate sustainable economic growth across the continent and to help Africans manage the disruptive economic shock of COVID and the food security crisis caused by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

“Finally, the Secretary will focus on the devastating impacts of climate change. We are continuing to partner with African leaders to tackle the climate crisis and to work together on clean energy development and to provide needed tools and innovation to transition for the future. We will want to consult on the decision to open up the Congolese rain forest to oil and gas exploration. The consequences for the DRC, for Africa, and for the world are immense. And we’ll also want to continue to work with the Congolese Government on how they can best diversify and grow their economy sustainably.

“Just to note, we’ve had a lot of travel to Africa this summer. In June, Under Secretary Nuland went to Somalia, Djibouti, Mozambique, and Nigeria. Under Secretary Zeya just returned from a trip to Mozambique and Namibia. Derek Chollet this week has been in Senegal, and Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield is going next week to Uganda and Rwanda. We’ll also have a lot of CODELs in August. So all of this is designed to create opportunities for us to meet our partners in person and to collaborate on these critical issues.”

Regardless of how Mary Phee is characterizing Blinken’s trip to Africa, it will all be about the battle for influence on the continent between the United States, Russia and China.

Right now, with the devastating war on Ukraine and fears that China may invade Taiwan, the United States, the European Union, China, and Russia seem back in the Cold War era where the West is portraying the East as the bad guys and the East is portraying the West as the bad ones.

In Cameroon last week, Emmanuel Macron called on the African continent for what he described as “hypocrisy” during a news conference in Yaounde with President Paul Biya of Cameroon on Tuesday, asserting that while Europe had identified Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as a war, much of Africa had not.

“I have seen too much hypocrisy, particularly on the African continent,” he said. “I’m saying this very calmly – with some not calling it a war when it is one and saying they don’t know who started it because they have diplomatic pressure.”

His remarks came on the second day of a three-nation tour of Africa at the same time that the Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov was visiting other African nations, including Ethiopia, Uganda, the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Lavrov sang praises for Africa for understanding what he described as the “root cause” of the war in Ukraine and reminded Africans not to forget those who colonized them and have continued to harm them.

He even published a column in newspapers in Egypt, Congo, Uganda and Ethiopia, the four countries he toured, telling Africans, “We appreciate the considered African position as to the situation in and around Ukraine,” adding that “Although unprecedented by its scale, the pressure from beyond has not brought our friends to join the anti-Russian sanctions. Such an independent path deserves deep respect.”

The White House last Monday blasted Lavrov‘s African tour, asserting that he is “attempting to stem the onslaught of outrage against Russia” after invading Ukraine and causing a global food crisis. On his trip, Lavrov made the case that the invasion of Ukraine was justified and is not the cause of the global food crisis affecting Africa.

“The Russian federation knows its horrific war against Ukraine has caused the majority of the international community to see it as a pariah state,” White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said during a press briefing in Washington.

She said Russia has created a global food crisis by preventing grain exports and that Its bombing of the Odesa port is a violation of its own agreements. “Foreign Minister Lavrov as you just stated is attempting to engage with countries to try to stem the onslaught of outrage against Russia, especially by misrepresenting Russia’s role in causing a surge in global food insecurity,” said Jean-Pierre.

Lavrov, who visited Egypt last week Sunday, was in Congo-Brazzaville on Monday, Uganda on Tuesday, and Ethiopia on Wednesday where he held meetings at the African Union headquarters in Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia.

The variety of opinions and positions in Africa was more evident last March when at least 25 of 54 African nations abstained from a vote to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine during the United Nations General Assembly, as many countries in the continent avoided taking a side on the war.

Blinken’s visit to Africa will come after a trip to Cambodia, the Philippines, State Department spokesperson Ned Price said in a statement on Friday. “Secretary Blinken will first travel to Phnom Penh, Cambodia, August 3-5 to participate in the U.S.-ASEAN Ministerial Meeting, the East Asia Summit Foreign Ministers’ Meeting, and the ASEAN Regional Forum,” he wrote.  

“At each ministerial, the Secretary will emphasize the United States’ commitment to ASEAN centrality and successful implementation of the ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific.  He will also address the COVID-19 pandemic, economic cooperation, the fight against climate change, the crisis in Burma, and Russia’s war in Ukraine.  The Secretary will meet bilaterally with Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen and Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Prak Sokhonn to discuss U.S. support for ASEAN and efforts to strengthen our bilateral relationship with Cambodia.  Secretary Blinken will also engage with alumni of the Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative.

“In Manila, the Philippines, on August 6, the Secretary will meet with President Ferdinand Romualdez Marcos Jr. and Secretary of Foreign Affairs Enrique Manalo to discuss bilateral efforts to strengthen the U.S.-Philippines alliance, including through increased cooperation on energy, trade, and investment, advancing our shared democratic values, and pandemic recovery,” he added.

East Asian and Pacific Affairs Assistant Secretary Daniel J. Kritenbrink who briefed reporters on Friday alongside Mary Catherine Phee described Blinken’s trip to Asia as coming at “a profoundly important time in our relationship with ASEAN.”

“At May’s U.S.-ASEAN Summit here in Washington, D.C., we agreed to elevate our relationship to a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership. The Secretary will discuss that matter with our ASEAN friends in Phnom Penh, which will lead up to the November U.S.-ASEAN Summit and East Asia Summit,” he said.

He added, “In Cambodia next week, again, I mentioned the Secretary will participate in three separate ministerials: first, the U.S.-ASEAN Ministerial, where we will highlight our enduring and committed partnership with ASEAN, our respect for ASEAN centrality, and our strong support for the ASEAN outlook on the Indo-Pacific, as well as our work with ASEAN partners on a range of shared challenges.

“Secondly, in the East Asia Summit foreign ministers meeting, we will focus on strategic issues and global challenges. For example, we’ll address transboundary challenges such as climate change and human rights. We’ll also discuss the PRC’s growing coercive activity across the region.

“And third and finally in the ASEAN Regional Forum, or ARF, the Secretary will address specific political and security concerns, encourage preventative diplomacy, and support ASEAN’s commitment to regional security and to nuclear nonproliferation and disarmament.

“At all three ministerials, as well as at the many bilateral engagements that the Secretary has planned, Secretary Blinken will urge our partners to step up pressure on the Burmese military regime following its horrific and heinous execution of four pro-democracy advocates. This is just the latest example of the regime’s brutality. The Secretary will also press all countries in the region to enhance support for the people of Burma, the pro-democracy movement, and all those working to restore Burma’s path to democracy.

“The Secretary will also discuss Russia’s ongoing war in Ukraine. America’s goal is straightforward: We want to see a democratic, independent, sovereign, and prosperous Ukraine with the means to deter and defend itself against further aggression. If Russia does not pay a heavy price for its actions, it will send a message to other would-be aggressors that they too can seize territory and subjugate other countries. It will put the survival of other peaceful sovereign states at risk. There will, of course, also be discussions on issues related to food and energy security, which obviously have been negatively impacted by Russia’s war.

“In his meeting with Cambodian leaders on a bilateral basis, the Secretary will stress his strong support for ASEAN and for the success of Cambodia’s chairmanship this year. He will also underscore the U.S. desire to have a productive and positive relationship with Cambodia, highlighting strong bilateral cooperation on issues such as DPRK sanctions enforcement, law enforcement coordination, and condemnation of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. At the same time, however, the Secretary will also stress the importance of Cambodia’s being open and transparent about its security cooperation with the PRC and the need for Cambodian leaders to make meaningful progress to support multi-party democracy, respect for human rights, and to reopen civic and political space.

“Next, Secretary Blinken will visit the Philippines, where he will meet with newly elected President Ferdinand Marcos, Jr. and the new Secretary of Foreign Affairs Enrique Manalo. We welcome the statements that President Marcos recently made about the importance of preserving the Philippines’ territorial integrity. Secretary Blinken will reinforce and underscore to our Philippine allies that our commitment to our Mutual Defense Treaty is ironclad. He also intends to have important discussions on enhanced cooperation on trade and investment and on clean energy, as well as on advancing our shared democratic values and strengthening respect for human rights, including press freedom.”

Both Catherine Phee and Daniel J. Kritenbrink fielded questions from reporters, explaining in details each aspect of the upcoming trip.

Below are some of those questions and answers:

OPERATOR: Once again, ladies and gentlemen, if you do have a question, press * then 0 at this moment.

MR PRICE: We’ll start with the line of Jennifer Hansler, please.

QUESTION: Hi, can you hear me?

MR PRICE: We can. Go ahead.

QUESTION: Awesome. Thank you. Are there any plans for the Secretary to meet with Foreign Minister Lavrov while they are both in Cambodia for the ministerial? And then on Paul Rusesabagina, will the Secretary be warning about any consequences should they continue to detain him, and what would those consequences be? Thank you.

MR PRICE: Jenny, I’ll start with your first question. We have no plans to meet with Foreign Minister Lavrov when they are in Cambodia. I’ll turn it over to Assistant Secretary Phee on your second.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY PHEE: Thanks, Ned. Yeah, I don’t want to get ahead of those discussions with President Kagame. We’ve been very clear with the Government of Rwanda about our concerns about his case, his trial, and his conviction, particularly the lack of fair trial guarantees in his case. And I’m looking forward to the opportunity for this issue to be discussed at a senior level.

MR PRICE: We’ll go to the line of Dave Lawler.

QUESTION: Ned, a question on the last two stops, Rwanda and DRC. I assume part of the reason for choosing those locations is to try to reduce tensions between them. Can you talk a bit about that? And you spoke about the need to respect territorial integrity; obviously, DRC has said Rwanda is arming and supporting the M23 rebels and so violating its territorial integrity. I guess does the U.S. have any position on whether that is the case, and is it a problem for the U.S. if that is the case? Thanks.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY PHEE: I think, as everybody knows, the situation in eastern Congo has tragically been volatile for about two decades, with over five million people who’ve lost their lives there, and a range of armed actors who also seek sanctuary in neighboring countries.

Recently, a few months ago, the Kenyans launched an initiative known as the Nairobi Process to try and work with the Congolese and neighboring countries to get a grip on the role of armed groups, including M23, and that effort has begun, I think, to address the concerns. Angola also hosted both the – President Kagame and President Tshisekedi just a few weeks ago to help urge de-escalation in tension. And I know that Secretary Blinken hopes to contribute to these conversations and see what the United States can do to reinforce these regional diplomatic efforts and to see how we can help calm the situation.

MR PRICE: We’ll go to the line of Simon Lewis, please.

QUESTION: Hi, thank you.

OPERATOR: Simon, your line is open.

QUESTION: Thanks. Hi, thank you. So the first question: Assistant Secretary Kritenbrink – I will – I just wanted to ask a couple of things on the Asia side of the trip. One thing: Is there any plans for a bilateral with Wang Yi during the Cambodia event? And I wondered if you could give us an update given the recent developments in Myanmar with the execution of activists. Does that change the thinking on potentially sanctioning the oil and gas enterprise? Is that getting any closer to happening?

And I just wanted to follow up on the questions on Rwanda to Assistant Secretary Phee. I just wondered, in the light of the letter that Senator Menendez wrote to the – to the Secretary about Rwanda, do – is there – is this sort of U.S. aid to Rwanda under discussion during this trip? Is that something that – given those concerns about Paul Rusesabagina and also the Rwandan development with the M23 fighting, are you looking at reducing the level of aid that goes there? Thank you.

MR PRICE: Dan, would you like to start?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY KRITENBRINK: Absolutely. Thanks very much for the question. Look, on your first question I would say at this point there are no formal or official plans to sit down and meet with State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi, particularly since the Secretary just saw him a couple of weeks ago, as you’re aware, in Bali, where they met for more than five hours and had a very candid and productive and comprehensive conversation. But as you know, at these multilateral meetings there often are opportunities for pull-asides. So we’ll see how things develop, but no formal plans at this point.

On your second question, on Myanmar, thanks very much for raising that. Look, again, I’ll just reiterate: I think the international community is really horrified and incensed by these inhuman and heinous executions that were just carried out. But really, this is just the latest demonstration of the regime’s brutality, which thus far has murdered more than 2,100 Burmese since the coup d’état. What I would say is that you can see the depth of that indignation through the various international statements that have been issued. Of course, the Secretary spoke, our friends in ASEAN issued a statement, the G7 has issued a statement, and other likeminded partners have as well.

As far as additional steps, this will be a real focus of our conversations at the ASEAN meetings in Cambodia. I would just underscore that all options are on the table, including related to MOGE. Certainly don’t have anything to announce today, but I think it’s fair to say that we’ll consider any and all means necessary to increase pressure on the regime in Burma and to cut off their funding streams that continue to fuel their repression. And so we’ll continue to examine all of that across the board, and at the same time we’ll keep in mind that we want to make sure whatever we do, it doesn’t exacerbate the already difficult circumstances in which the Burmese people find themselves. Thank you.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY PHEE: So on Rwanda, Secretary Blinken had an opportunity a few days ago to speak to Senator Menendez about his letter, and he told him that he intended to raise the issues outlined in the letter when he has an opportunity to speak with President Kagame, that that would be part of the discussion of a range of topics that he hopes to review with President Kagame.

So, as I said before, I don’t want to get ahead of that discussion. I think it’s great that we’re going to have the opportunity to engage at a senior level and explore what’s possible for our future relationship.

MR PRICE: We’ll go to the line of Ryohei Takagi.

QUESTION: Can you hear me okay?

MR PRICE: Yes, please go ahead.

QUESTION: Thank you, Ned and Assistant Secretary Kritenbrink. I just wonder whether he will meet his counterparts from the DPRK on the sidelines of ASEAN Regional Forum in Cambodia. And secondly, you have mentioned the security cooperation between Cambodia and the PRC. It has been reported that China is secretly building a naval facility in Cambodia. So could you tell us some updates on it, and what is the U.S. position to it? Thank you.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY KRITENBRINK: Thank you for your questions. I can say clearly that there are no plans to meet with North Korean counterparts. You do point out rightly that North Korea is represented in the ASEAN Regional Forum. I don’t have any information in front of me who may or may not be present representing North Korea, but no plans to meet with them, although I am confident that the Secretary will speak directly to the situation in North Korea during his intervention at the ARF.

You mentioned Cambodian security cooperation with the PRC, and I noted that in my opening comments as well. Look, we’ve been crystal clear, and the Secretary has as well and the Deputy Secretary and myself publicly, that we have encouraged the Government of Cambodia to be fully transparent about the intent, nature, and scope of its project at Ream and the role of the PRC military in its construction there. Certainly I think a number of us have significant concerns about that facility there, and in particular any exclusive PRC military presence at Ream would risk diminishing Cambodia’s autonomy and undermining regional security. So again, we’ll have an opportunity to convey that message to Cambodian friends again, and I am confident that others in the region will as well.

MR PRICE: Julian Pecquet.

QUESTION: Thank you. Sorry, I had a similar question regarding, more specifically, on any sanctions or anything else that you might announce. I know you can’t talk about that, but is Roger Carstens traveling with the Secretary? And more broadly, can you talk about other people who might be on the trip to Africa in particular? Thank you.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY PHEE: The Secretary is taking several leaders to join him, particularly in South Africa, where we’re doing the Strategic Dialogue. Under Secretary Jose Fernandez will be joining us; the head of USTDA, the Trade and Development Association, will be joining us; our new head of PEPFAR, who we stole from Africa CDC, the great Dr. John – I’m going to mispronounce his name – Nkengasong – I apologize; and also colleagues from HHS. And Under Secretary Fernandez will also join the Secretary in Congo. So Roger’s not traveling with the Secretary on this trip. That’ll be a subject the Secretary himself will raise.

MR PRICE: And we’ll conclude with the line of Pearl Matibe.

QUESTION: Thank you, Ned, and thank you so much, Assistant Secretary Phee. My question is regarding South Africa. So as evidence has shown in several countries, if unemployment and indigenous land and indigenous wealth is not tackled, conflict can follow. So could you possibly preview for us how does the Secretary plan to concretely address issues of unemployment?

And then also, do you think that he might address the notion of foreign powers being viewed as an increasing – by an increasing number of – in the population, including young people, as the second most significant driver of negative change in South Africa?

And I know that you have always said that human rights is part and parcel or threaded into your interactions. Will he address brutality and the extent of xenophobic violence and human rights of migrants while he is there? I’d appreciate your comments on these, Secretary Phee. Thanks.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY PHEE: So thanks very much for your question and for highlighting those important concerns. I wanted to draw your attention to the speech that he will deliver. He spoke, as you may recall, when he was in Nigeria last November about U.S. policy and our approach towards Africa, and the formal announcement of this strategy is of course consistent with what he outlined and what we’ve been doing since the administration came into office.

But it will be an amplification of our conviction that partnership with Africa is really critical to meeting shared challenges. And those shared challenges really include economic issues, and we recognize the incredible youth dynamic and the challenge that poses for African societies in terms of employment, and that’s why we’re working hard to mobilize greater trade and investment in Africa to help African economies develop in a way that addresses that youth bulge and also that is consistent with our shared climate change goals, as I said, to develop in a sustainable way.

So I think those themes will be very public while he’s there. And again, as I said earlier, he always discusses – he believes passionately in human rights, and he always discusses it in all of his stops.

MR PRICE: Excellent. Well, thank you very much to our two speakers, Assistant Secretary Phee, Assistant Secretary Kritenbrink, and for everyone for tuning in. Just a reminder this call was on the record, and the embargo is now lifted. Thank you all very much.

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