Sep 30, 2021 - World

Biden's top team skips Africa, prioritizes Asia in early trips

Biden administration international visits
Data: U.S. government press releases; Chart: Kavya Beheraj/Axios

The travel itineraries of the Biden administration’s top foreign policy officials show a clear pattern.

The big picture: Early engagement with long-standing partners in Europe, the Middle East and East Asia; An effort to deepen relationships in Southeast Asia; Limited emphasis on Latin America beyond migration issues.

  • Little high-level attention at all on sub-Saharan Africa.

Breaking it down: With the pandemic still a concern, President Biden has traveled only for summits: NATO in Belgium, the G7 in the U.K., and Vladimir Putin in Geneva. He’s expected to return to Europe for the G20 in Italy (Oct. 29–Nov. 1) and the UN climate summit in the U.K. (Nov. 1–3).

  • Secretary of State Tony Blinken has visited 22 countries, mostly in Europe, the Middle East and the Indo-Pacific, with one stop in Latin America (Costa Rica).
  • India, Japan and South Korea have all hosted multiple high-level visitors, and several officials have made trips to Southeast Asia, all of which underscore Biden’s focus on China.
  • Worth noting: No senior officials have visited Canada, though Biden met virtually with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and saw him at the G7.

For an administration that is trying to shift attention and resources away from the Middle East, there have been quite a few high-level visits to that region (some came in the context of the Afghanistan withdrawal).

  • National security adviser Jake Sullivan this week became the most senior Biden official to visit Saudi Arabia and meet Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
  • Meanwhile, with the exception of Egypt, none of the eight senior officials whose travels we tracked have stepped foot in Africa.

State of play: The administration has not ignored the continent entirely.

  • Victoria Nuland, the third-ranking State Department official, visited four African countries in August, and Biden held virtual “visits” to Nigeria and Kenya in April.
  • The civil war and humanitarian crisis in Ethiopia has attracted significant high-level attention, as well as visits from USAID administrator Samantha Power (who has also visited Sudan) and Jeffrey Feltman, special envoy for the Horn of Africa.

Yes, but: “As long as aid and not investment is the basis of the relationship, making the case for Africa’s strategic importance will be difficult,” says Gyude Moore, a fellow at the Center for Global Development. “It is a bit disappointing since Biden was supposed to be an improvement on Trump.”

  • By contrast, Chinese foreign ministers typically take their first overseas trip to Africa, other top officials visit regularly, and African and Chinese leaders will gather in Senegal later this year for a triennial summit.
  • Just 4% of China's global trade is with Africa, Moore says, but “you wouldn’t know from the attention China lavishes on the continent.”

The bottom line: “It’s difficult to convince the U.S. government that Africa is important enough to warrant these exchanges,” says Moore, who is also a former Liberian government minister. “This is not a Biden problem. This is an American government problem.”

  • The White House and State Department did not comment for this story.

Editor's note: In addition to Biden, Sullivan, Blinken and his deputy Wendy Sherman, we tracked the travels of Vice President Harris, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and UN Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield. We also included climate envoy John Kerry, who has Biden’s ear and is keeping a particularly busy travel schedule.

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