ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia — Capping a three-country swing across Africa, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo delivered a speech Wednesday in Ethiopia's capital in which he warned African countries to "be wary of authoritarian regimes and their empty promises" and said economic partnership with the United States was the path to "true liberation."

The secretary’s thinly veiled barb toward China, by far Africa’s biggest trading partner for more than a decade, came as he pitched American-style capitalism and economic liberalization as the only way to move forward after “failed socialist experiments of years past” in numerous African countries. Pompeo touted investments by American companies such as Chevron, Coca-Cola and Citibank on the visit, which included stops in Senegal and Angola as well as Ethiopia.

The trip concluded without an announcement of any major deal or new initiative, and it deepened a sense among African politics watchers that U.S. policy has moved away from popular humanitarian programs and broad-based trade benefits to a near-
singular focus on economic competition with China.

Given the vast gap between Chinese and American economic investment in Africa, cuts to many of those humanitarian programs and the impending expiration of the U.S. government’s biggest trade-benefit program in Africa, the lack of a big-ticket announcement also seemed to underline how the Trump administration has shifted the U.S. government’s Africa policy toward the rhetorical as opposed to the tangible.

“The U.S. was and is a strong partner of Ethiopia,” said Abel Abate, an independent analyst in Addis Ababa. “But this talk of ‘true liberation’ is of course highly exaggerated.”

Chinese investment, mostly driven by state-owned banks and companies, greatly outweighs American flows, and millions of Africans, rich and poor, depend on the trade in Chinese commodities for a living. Highly visible infrastructure projects across the continent are financed by China.

U.S. government investment in Africa has tended more toward less flashy sectors such as health and education, and it totals in the billions of dollars every year. In his speech, Pompeo acknowledged a common truism that aid money is “very unlikely” to drive economic growth, but he said the United States would be with Africa “every step of the way” in a process of economic liberalization. He particularly emphasized entrepreneurs — “those people who are willing to go out and just crush it every day” — as his hoped-for beneficiaries of U.S. private investment.

In public remarks during his trip, Pompeo chose not to address China by name in most cases. But his juxtaposition of American and Chinese terms of engagement was stark and obvious, for the most part.

“When we come, we hire Angolans,” he said Monday at a meeting of business leaders in Luanda, the Angolan capital. “When we come to Angola, we show up with money that will benefit the Angolan people. . . . Not every nation that comes here to invest does that. There’s no political objective.”

One recent study on Chinese companies in Angola found that more than 70 percent of workers in construction and manufacturing projects were Angolan.

Recent decisions by the Trump administration have strained relationships with African governments, such as the imposition of visa bans on Nigerian, Tanzanian, Eritrean and Sudanese travelers, and the widely expected announcement of a drawdown of the U.S. military presence across an increasingly unstable swath of West Africa.

President Trump’s trade representative, Robert E. Lighthizer, recently announced the beginning of talks with Kenya on a free-trade agreement, but that would be the first in sub-Saharan Africa, where nearly 40 countries enjoy special trade benefits that are set to expire in 2025.

Meanwhile, top-level Chinese officials regularly travel to Africa, and nearly every African leader goes to China for an annual economic forum. Side-by-side comparison with China is a losing game for the Trump administration and one that risks alienating African leaders who resent the proposition that they have to choose sides, said Eric Olander, director of the China-Africa Project.

“The secretary and other senior U.S. officials need to start deflecting questions about the Chinese in Africa and instead focus on their own positive agenda for the continent if they want to be taken seriously,” he said.