WASHINGTON (AP) — President Joe Biden praised South Africa as a vital voice on the global stage as he hosted President Cyril Ramaphosa on Friday at the White House for talks that were expected to touch on the two nations' differences on Russia's war in Ukraine and more.
In a brief appearance before the media at the start of their meeting, Biden made no direct mention that Ramaphosa is among African leaders who have maintained a neutral stance in the aftermath of Russia's invasion of Ukraine. South Africa abstained from a United Nations vote condemning Russia’s actions and calling for a mediated settlement.
But the president seemed to offer a subtle recognition that the two countries have their differences.
“We really need to make sure we fully understand one another,” said Biden, who heaped praise on Ramaphosa for his country's leadership on fighting the COVID-19 pandemic, the impact of climate change and other issues.
Ahead of the meeting, South Africa’s international relations minister, Naledi Pandor, said Ramaphosa would emphasize the need for dialogue to find an end to the conflict during his meeting with Biden and in separate talks with Vice President Kamala Harris.
Pandor added that the issue will be South Africa's focus when it participates in the annual meeting of the U.N. General Assembly next week.
“We would want a process of diplomacy to be initiated between the two parties and we believe the U.N. must lead, the U.N secretary-general in particular,” Pandor said.
The White House meeting comes on the heels of Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s visit to South Africa last month, in which he said the Biden administration sees Africa’s 54 nations as “equal partners” in tackling global problems.
But the administration has been disappointed that South Africa and much of the continent have declined to follow the U.S. in condemning the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
During the Blinken visit, Pandor accused the U.S. and other Western powers of focusing on the Ukraine conflict to the detriment of crises around the globe.
“We should be equally concerned at what is happening to the people of Palestine, as we are with what is happening to the people of Ukraine,” she said.
The Biden administration, meanwhile, has sought to underscore that Russia’s blockade of Ukraine’s Black Sea ports has led to scarcities in grain, cooking oil and fertilizer — resulting in disproportionate impact on Africans.
South Africa’s neutral position is largely because of the support the Soviet Union gave during the Cold War era to Ramaphosa’s African National Congress in its fight to end apartheid, South Africa’s regime of repression against the Black majority that ended in 1994. South Africa is seen as a leader of the several African countries that will not side against Russia.
Despite the differences on the war in Ukraine, the Biden administration recognizes the importance of strengthening relations in Africa as China has spent decades entrenching itself in the continent's natural resources markets. Improving relations with South Africa — one of the continent's biggest economies — is central to the U.S. effort.
John Stremlau, an international relations expert at the University of the Witwatersrand, said the talks underscore that the U.S. sees South Africa as having the “potential to lead Africa in a constructive way” on trade and other issues.
White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said the two leaders would also discuss climate change and opportunities to increase trade and investment. The vice president's office in a statement said that Harris and Ramaphosa discussed global health security, space cooperation, climate change, women's empowerment and other matters, as they met over breakfast at the vice president's residence.
In a brief exchange with reporters before his meeting with Harris, Ramaphosa said he would like to see the relationship between the two countries strengthened.
South Africa’s ambitious efforts to transition from coal to cleaner energy are expected to be discussed during the leaders' talks. The U.S., Britain, France and Germany announced a plan last year to provid e $8.5 billion in loans and grants over five years to help South Africa phase out coal.
Ramaphosa could also raise with Biden the failure of the United States and other wealthier nations to make good on a more than decades-old pledge — first made in 2009 and reaffirmed at the 2015 Paris climate talks — to spend $100 billion to help developing nations deal with climate change.
Harris in comments to reporters praised South Africa's leadership in the midst of “the challenges that we each face with the climate crisis and the work that we will do together to address that crisis.”
Magome reported from Johannesburg.
Mogomotsi Magome And Aamer Madhani, The Associated Press