Thomas-Greenfield was already questioned by multiple senators in private meetings about an Oct. 25, 2019, speech she gave on “China-U.S.-Africa Relationships” at the Savannah State University Confucius Institute’s fifth anniversary lecture event. Several Senate aides said the speech was too optimistic and soft regarding China’s policies and intentions in Africa at a time when the U.S. government was trying to shed light on China’s many abuses there.
She called for “a win-win-win situation” in Africa, one in which the United States and China would work together to promote values there such as good governance, gender equity and the rule of law, according to a copy of her speech I obtained.
“I see no reason why China cannot share in those values,” she said. “In fact, China is in a unique position to spread these ideals given its strong footprint on the continent.”
She touted Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative and noted China’s vast expansion into all aspects of African economic and even cultural life. She criticized the Trump administration for treating Africa as a battleground for great power competition. She said the United States and China are not in a cold war and the notion that U.S.-China competition could be good for Africa is false. Thomas-Greenfield also seemed to excuse Beijing’s debt-trap diplomacy in Africa.
“Those who would criticize Chinese predatory lending or the governments who accept these deals must also acknowledge that in many cases, the United States and the West is not showing up or offering viable alternatives,” she said. “This is especially the case because U.S. investment in diplomatic engagement is lagging.”
It’s certainly true that Beijing’s success is due in part to the vacuum left by lax attention from the West, GOP staffers admitted, but they noted that began well before the Trump administration. Regardless, “America’s top diplomats should not be praising the genius of the Chinese Communist Party while denigrating American diplomacy at the Confucius Institute,” a senior GOP Senate aide told me, characterizing the concerns of members and staffers in his party.
Multiple senators are planning to raise this speech with Thomas-Greenfield at her confirmation hearing, including asking her whether she was paid by the Confucius Institute, which is fully funded by the Chinese government. Sources told me she received a $1,500 honorarium, which was paid by the university. Savannah State University closed its Confucius Institute last year, one of several dozen U.S. academic institutions to do so as concerns rose about Chinese Communist Party influence on U.S. campuses.
Biden transition spokesman Andrew Bates told me that Thomas-Greenfield attended the event because of her relationship with the university, the oldest of the historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) in Georgia, but she didn’t realize the significance of speaking at the CCP-backed Confucius Institute at the time.
“She left the event repulsed by what she learned about how the Chinese government was preying on the Black community, regrets accepting the invitation and endorses Congress’s work to crack down on Confucius Institutes,” Bates said.
In other settings, Thomas-Greenfield has more clearly expressed her concerns about China’s malign practices on the African continent. In June 2020, she called on Beijing to provide more debt relief for African countries because of the covid-19 pandemic. “What China has done is simply not enough to deal with the issue,” she testified at a hearing of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence.
In the November/December 2020 issue of Foreign Affairs, Thomas-Greenfield co-authored an essay with Biden’s nominee for CIA director, William J. Burns, entitled, “The Transformation of Diplomacy,” in which they argued that the United States “paid too little attention to a rapidly changing international landscape in which geopolitical competition with a rising China and a resurgent Russia was accelerating,” and called for the U.S. government to “organize wisely for geopolitical competition with China.”
Thomas-Greenfield and Burns also wrote, “U.S. diplomacy has to accept the country’s diminished, but still pivotal, role in global affairs. It has to apply greater restraint and discipline.”
Meanwhile, the Chinese government and its national champion companies are systematically expanding Chinese influence in Africa by building critical infrastructure, exporting surveillance technologies, buying influence in African media, bribing officials and supporting some of the more odious regimes on the continent, said Joshua Eisenman, associate professor of politics at the University of Notre Dame’s Keough School of Global Affairs.
“What China is trying to do in Africa is to project the same things it’s trying to do internally,” he said. “It’s a threat to the independence and integrity of civil society in these countries.”
Overall, Thomas-Greenfield has extensive diplomatic experience and is expected to be confirmed. Her proposed deputy, Jeffrey Prescott, is a well-respected China hand. Their job, if confirmed, will not be to manage “win-win-win” arrangements with Beijing, but to work with allies to defend and advance Western values and norms against China’s attempts to erode them.