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Blinken is in South Africa for talks on a new strategy for the region

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Secretary of State Antony Blinken is holding high-level talks in South Africa and laying out a new strategy for U.S. relations in the region.

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

The U.S. is vying for influence on the continent, seeking to counter China's involvement and shape the narrative around the war in Ukraine. Blinken's trip follows recent visits from top Russian and Chinese officials.

FADEL: NPR's Michele Kelemen is traveling with the secretary and joins us from Pretoria.

Hi, Michele.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Hi there, Leila.

FADEL: So, Michele, what's the secretary of state's message there?

KELEMEN: So South Africa is kind of a key regional player. So it's fitting that he started his Africa swing here. He's also planning this week to visit the Democratic Republic of Congo and Rwanda. And there are some common themes in all of these places. The secretary wants to talk about food security in the wake of Russia's invasion of Ukraine. He wants to talk about climate change, the COVID-19 pandemic, other big problems that are facing the continent. And he's telling Africans that the U.S. really wants to be a partner in tackling all of this.

FADEL: Now, in that long list, you mentioned the war in Ukraine. Russia's foreign minister was just in Africa, too. How much is the U.S. in competition with Moscow on the continent?

KELEMEN: Well, Blinken says that the U.S. has interests in Africa that go beyond this geopolitical game, that this trip isn't just about countering Russian or Chinese influence. But it is clearly an area of concern. For instance, Blinken's making the case that - in the region - that they shouldn't buy into the Russian propaganda about Ukraine. The Russians argue that U.S. sanctions are to blame for a global food crisis. Blinken points out that it's Russia that's been blocking Ukrainian ports and stealing Ukrainian food stocks. And, you know, he thinks that Russia only agreed to a U.N.-brokered deal to allow some ships to leave Ukrainian ports because Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov heard a lot of concerns about this during his recent trip to Africa. So Blinken wants countries in the region really to keep up that pressure on Russia.

FADEL: Now, let's talk about China. It's a country that has invested a lot in Africa. China's in a major diplomatic feud with Washington following House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's visit to Taiwan. How is Blinken handling that?

KELEMEN: Yeah. I mean, he's been trying to reassure leaders that he met on this trip - he was in Asia earlier, actually - that the U.S. is not seeking any conflict with Beijing. He believes China is using the Pelosi visit as a pretext for a military buildup around Taiwan. He also says that China's decision to cut off diplomatic talks with the U.S. in key areas, including climate change, doesn't really punish the U.S., but punishes the developing world - places like South Africa. China's the world's largest emitter of CO2. So walking away from climate talks hurts everyone. That's the case that he's been making. And it's a theme he's likely to continue to press on this trip.

FADEL: OK. All of this sounds like concerns the U.S. has been raising for years about China's influence in Africa.

KELEMEN: Yeah. And Blinken doesn't want African nations to feel like they're - he's making them choose between China and the U.S. He wants to show that the U.S. can be a good partner on all the issues he's been talking about. The real question is whether the U.S. is really going to invest in Africa or just give speeches about it.

FADEL: NPR's Michele Kelemen.

Thanks so much.

KELEMEN: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF TEEBS' "WHILE YOU DOOOOO (EXTENDED)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.
Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.