ABUJA, Nigeria — When Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken drove into Nigeria’s capital Abuja from the airport on Thursday, his motorcade zoomed past the China Chamber of Commerce in Nigeria building, a domed, almost palace-like structure along the expressway.
It was a similar story a day earlier in Nairobi, where Mr. Blinken drove to the airport alongside a giant expressway under construction — part of China’s massive Belt and Road Initiative, which funds huge infrastructure projects across Asia and Africa. Chinese characters could be seen on tractors and other heavy equipment along the route.
The reality of Washington’s global struggle with Beijing, the organizing principle of President Biden’s foreign policy, has shadowed Mr. Blinken’s debut trip to sub-Saharan Africa this week. The first three days of his trip have been filled with reminders of Beijing’s growing influence on the continent, along with some indicators of waning American clout.
In a speech in Abuja on Friday, Mr. Blinken outlined the Biden administration’s vision for Africa, which he said must feature close cooperation to advance democracy, prevent pandemics and slow climate change.
But in a message that both reflected an awareness of a regional power game with China and attempted to downplay it, he also said the U.S. would no longer treat Africa as a mere pawn in the global competition with other powers.
“Too many times, the countries of Africa have been treated as junior partners — or worse — rather than equal ones,” he said. The U.S. “firmly believes that it’s time to stop treating Africa as a subject of geopolitics — and start treating it as the major geopolitical player it has become.”
Speaking at a Thursday news conference alongside his Nigerian counterpart, Foreign Minister Geoffrey Onyeama, Mr. Blinken said in response to a question about Beijing’s influence that U.S. engagement “is not about China or any other third party. It’s about Africa.”
But Mr. Onyeama didn’t seem to mind the idea of competition.
“Regarding U.S.-Chinese competition in Africa, I mean, I don’t want to sound almost — well, cynical, almost, about it,” he said. “But sometimes it’s a good thing for you if you’re the attractive bride and everybody is offering you wonderful things,” he added.
“So you take what you can from each of them,” he said.
Beijing has made major infrastructure investments in Nigeria, including $7.5 billion since 2018, according to the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington think tank. Last month, China’s ambassador to Nigeria said Beijing plans to begin opening banks in the country soon, a move analysts called an effort to further integrate China into the country’s financial system.
Mr. Blinken seemed to at least partially concede Mr. Onyeama’s point about a beneficial competition, saying that U.S. infrastructure investments in the continent could make for a “race to the top.”
U.S. officials have long feared that Chinese investment in Africa, Asia and Europe instead lowers standards. And Mr. Blinken made an implicit reference to the risks of Africa’s growing reliance on hundreds of billions of dollars in Chinese investment, much of it in the form of massive debt.
He insisted that U.S. dollars come with labor, environmental and anti-corruption protections — all of which are often absent from Chinese projects.
What matters is “not just the resources made available,” he said, “but how those resources are actually used.”
Mr. Blinken has adopted a lighter touch on the subject of China than his predecessor, Mike Pompeo, who framed his sole visit to Africa, in February 2020, around competition with Beijing — urging African nations to “be wary of authoritarian regimes and their empty promises.” He claimed that economic partnership with the U.S. would bring “true liberation.”
That is in keeping with a constant refrain of Biden administration officials, also offered to European and other Asian countries. They say the U.S. is not asking other nations to choose sides between Washington and Beijing, an effort to avoid inflammatory rhetoric that could set back delicate efforts at détente with China.
Nigerian officials received Mr. Blinken warmly, and on Thursday he praised the country’s “vibrant democracy,” noting on Friday that its government planned to attend the global democracy summit that President Biden is to host next month.
But several points of friction were also visible.
In multiple remarks, Mr. Blinken called for accountability for what an independent panel last week found was the killing by Nigerian army troops of protesters opposing police brutality in Lagos last fall. Nigeria’s military has denied that it fired live ammunition at the protesters, who demonstrated in the tens of thousands against a government that human rights groups have criticized as increasingly repressive and corrupt.
Mr. Blinken also made implicit reference to concerns that American military aid to Nigeria, mainly intended to help the government combat Islamist extremist groups like Boko Haram, has been used instead to commit human rights abuses. Mr. Blinken said on Thursday that the U.S. was working to ensure “that the assistance we provide is used in a way that fully respects the human rights of every Nigerian.”
And while Mr. Blinken’s Friday speech emphasized that Africa can play an important role in slowing climate change, Mr. Onyeama sounded a cautionary note about the implications for his country, which is a major energy producer.
“We noticed that a number of the big industrialized countries and financial institutions are now defunding projects, and gas projects,” he said. “And of course this would really be a huge blow for countries such as ours that really want to see gas as a transition fuel, and to have time in which to work toward ‘net zero.’”
Mr. Onyeama said he hoped that the U.S. would persuade the World Bank and other financial institutions “to go easy, as it were, on some of these countries that need this transition period to use these fuels.”
Mr. Blinken arrived in Abuja after a two-day stop in the Kenyan capital of Nairobi, where he renewed calls for negotiations to stop the civil war in Ethiopia and repeated an American demand that Sudan’s military reverse an October coup and reinstate the country’s prime minister, Abdalla Hamdok.
But the crises in those two East African nations flared during Mr. Blinken’s visit. At least 15 people in Sudan’s capital, Khartoum, were killed on Wednesday while protesting against the military regime.
On Thursday, Mr. Blinken said the U.S. was “deeply concerned” by the violence and reiterated his call to reinstate Mr. Hamdok, who led a transitional government that followed the popular overthrow of the country’s longtime dictator, Omar al-Bashir, in 2019.
The lack of visible progress in either Sudan or Ethiopia suggests the limits of America’s diplomatic influence on the continent. But U.S. officials remain hopeful about the prospect for breakthroughs.
A senior State Department official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that during a recent visit to Khartoum by the assistant secretary of state for African affairs, Molly Phee, Sudan’s generals said they were open to Mr. Hamdok’s return. But those same generals had left a U.S. envoy to Khartoum with the false impression that they would not seize power by force, shortly before the coup last month.
The official also said that Uhuru Kenyatta, the president of Kenya, told Mr. Blinken in Nairobi that Ethiopia’s prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, with whom he has met repeatedly, is coming to realize that his nation risks a descent into catastrophic violence as a result of his ongoing military campaign against Tigrayan rebels.
Mr. Abiy told Mr. Kenyatta he was willing to make compromises that could stop the fighting, according to this official and a second American official who also spoke on condition of anonymity. But the Ethiopian leader has yet to take any concrete steps that would deliver on that promise.
Declan Walsh contributed reporting from Nairobi.