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Blinken tells African countries they needn't pick a side as U.S. competes with China

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Secretary of State Antony Blinken is on a trip to Africa. He's telling countries that the U.S. doesn't want them to feel squeezed by geopolitics. The U.S. is in a struggle for influence on the continent with China and, to some extent, Russia. But Blinken says he looks to African countries as equal partners. NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: In a lecture hall at the University of Pretoria, Blinken laid out his approach to the continent. He said he doesn't want countries to feel caught in the middle of America's competition with Russia or China.

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ANTONY BLINKEN: Time and again, they have been told to pick a side in great power contests that feel far removed from daily struggles of their people. The United States will not dictate Africa's choices, neither should anyone else.

KELEMEN: But Blinken took a swipe at Russia for undermining the U.N. charter, with its invasion of Ukraine wreaking havoc on global food markets and sending unsavory mercenaries to conflicts in Africa.

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BLINKEN: That includes the Kremlin-backed Wagner Group, which exploits instability to pillage resources and commit abuses with impunity, as we've seen in Mali and the Central African Republic.

KELEMEN: Russia's foreign minister visited several African countries recently in a sign that he's less isolated than the U.S. would like. South Africa has remained neutral in U.N. debates over Russia's war in Ukraine. Foreign Minister Naledi Pandor says that doesn't mean her country supports the war. She says she wants diplomacy. But she also doesn't think this issue should take attention away from other matters on the U.N. agenda.

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NALEDI PANDOR: Just as much as the people of Ukraine deserve their territory and freedom, the people of Palestine deserve their territory and freedom.

KELEMEN: The South African foreign minister pressed Blinken on trade issues and tariffs and said Africa can't be party to a conflict between the U.S. and China. She says she hopes they can find some way to ease tensions.

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PANDOR: These are two great powers, the two biggest economies in the world. They've got to find a way of working together to allow us to grow.

KELEMEN: Secretary Blinken says the U.S. doesn't want a conflict with China, and he accused Beijing of overreacting to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's visit to Taiwan last week. China has stepped up military exercises and cut off talks with the U.S., including on climate change. The secretary of state says that could hurt developing nations, including here in Africa. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Pretoria. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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.