Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken wrapped up a four-nation tour through Africa on Thursday with a visit to Angola, an oil-rich former Cold War battleground that has become the site of a struggle for 21st-century economic influence.
During his visit to the coastal capital, Luanda, Mr. Blinken spotlighted major American investments in Angola, including more than $900 million for solar energy projects and $250 million to upgrade a rail corridor that carries critical minerals, including cobalt and copper, from central Africa to Angola’s Atlantic port of Lobito.
Those solar investments help to advance President Biden’s climate agenda while the transportation improvements further his goal of diversifying American supply chains — in part to reduce U.S. dependence on Chinese control of the vital ingredients for a modern economy.
Just over 20 years since the end of Angola’s civil war, which left perhaps as many as one million people dead, the country has rebuilt, modernized and developed friendly relations with Washington, which once funded rebels against a government backed by the Soviet Union and Cuba.
Speaking at a news conference alongside Téte António, Angola’s foreign minister, Mr. Blinken proclaimed that U.S.-Angola relations were at their “strongest” point in their history.
Unspoken was Angola’s economic links to China, which has lent Angola nearly $43 billion.
Those financial ties between Beijing and Luanda are one of several relationships that have alarmed U.S. military officials, who warn that China is seeking to establish a naval base with Atlantic Ocean access.
In March 2022, the top U.S. commander for Africa, Stephen J. Townsend, said he worried most that Equatorial Guinea would grant China such a base, but that Beijing had made progress toward that goal in other African nations. Some analysts place Angola on that list.
U.S. officials have been quietly lobbying western African nations to deny China an Atlantic-facing military presence, said Cameron Hudson, who served as National Security Council director of African affairs in the Bush administration. He noted that all four of Mr. Blinken’s stops this week — which also included Cape Verde, Ivory Coast and Nigeria — have Atlantic coasts.
Chinese bases were not a specific subject of Mr. Blinken’s discussions this week, but the generally closer ties with Africa that the Biden administration has been developing, including through the new Angola investments, make it easier for other officials to make a case against worrisome Chinese military influence.
Rather than overt talk of China, there was much emphasis during Mr. Blinken’s trip on what officials called an effort to treat African nations as partners and not as pieces on a global chessboard, reflecting a view among Biden officials that Africans resent being treated like pawns in a new Cold War of sorts with Beijing, or with Russia, which has recently expanded its interests in Africa through the Wagner mercenary group.
But Africans themselves brought up the issue of geopolitical competition more than once during Mr. Blinken’s visit. In the Ivory Coast capital, Abidjan, a local television reporter said to Mr. Blinken: “Africa in recent years seems to have become a battleground for influence among major powers. At what point do we think about the future of Africans?”
“It’s not for us to say they have to choose,” Mr. Blinken replied. “On the contrary, for us, the question is to present a good choice. And then people will decide.”
Without mentioning China by name, Mr. Blinken noted that “some countries” might lend African nations money that creates unsustainable debt and that these other countries might import workers rather than hire locals. The U.S. investments, by contrast, can “bring everyone upward,” he said.
In Angola, Biden administration officials seemed especially proud of U.S. backing for the Lobito Corridor rail project, which they consider a model for a planned wave of American investment in the continent. The corridor will contribute to Mr. Biden’s agenda of “de-risking” American reliance on critical minerals controlled by China. The Democratic Republic of Congo provides more than half the world’s supply of cobalt, which is used to make lithium-ion batteries; about three-quarters of that country’s supply is mined by China.
U.S. officials say the rail corridor, also funded by the European Union and African entities, will stimulate long-term African economic growth by attracting related investments. And they expect it to be profitable, unlike some major Chinese infrastructure investments spawned by Beijing’s “Belt and Road” initiative over the past decade.
The project, they say, will also create jobs at home, furthering Mr. Biden’s goal of “a foreign policy for the middle class.” Work on the more-than-800-mile corridor’s 186 bridges will use American steel and create 600 direct jobs, according to a fact sheet from Acrow, an American bridge-building company participating in the project.
Speaking in Luanda, a port city where oil tankers steam in and out of the harbor, Mr. Blinken said that the rail project has “genuinely transformative potential” for Angola and the region.
Another question that came up more than once during the trip was whether Mr. Biden would make good on a 2022 promise to visit Africa himself.
Asked on Thursday whether the president may yet visit, Mr. Blinken said his boss would “welcome the opportunity” to visit. “Of course, we have an election this year in the United States, so there are challenges to schedules,” he added.