Washington and London need Kenya if they are to checkmate Beijing

Wednesday March 18 2020

American submarines were patrolling a disputed part of the South China Sea when they were "surprised" by their Chinese counterparts.

"What are you doing here?" the American soldiers asked the Chinese.

"That is the same question we are asking?" the Chinese replied.

This incident, told in Tim Marshall's book, Prisoners of Geography, illustrates two important geopolitical points that reveal why the US and UK on the one hand and China on the other are locked in a battle for the soul — and pocket — of Kenya and, by extension, Africa.


The first is that for a long time, the Western world has monopolised trade and aid in Africa and was caught off guard when China "surprised" it by suddenly becoming one of the biggest dispensers of aid, not to mention formidable trading partner with many countries in Africa, Kenya included.

The second point is China has "surprised" the rest of the world by making the transition from being a "developing country" to a major force to reckon with globally. And this transition has happened at the same time as the American influence has been waning. One of the most telling signs of this change of global politics is the rise of Russia's Vladimir Putin as the most powerful political leader globally and the emergence of Xi Jinping as a close rival.


Putin, whose country shares a border with China, is believed to have influenced the American presidential election that saw Donald Trump win the White House race controversially. There are those who, as recent as this week, still believe that President Trump is a "Russian asset". It is not surprising, therefore, that one of the key planks of Mr Trump's election campaign was to tame China's increasing trade and diplomatic clout. This was the key message behind Mr Trump's "Make America Great Again" campaign slogan. And since he became President, he has increasingly upped the ante in his diplomatic and geopolitical onslaught against China. The most recent evidence of this was the scramble between President Trump and Mr Xi to hold talks with Kim Jong-Un, the North Korea leader who is also seen as the bad boy of Asia.

Given this competition between the two leaders and their respective countries, it is, therefore, instructive that President Trump has invited President Kenyatta to Washington just days before China hosts African leaders for the Forum on China-Africa Co-operation (Focac), slated for September 3 and 4 in Beijing.


According to the Chinese ambassador to Ethiopia, Mr Tan Jian, the meeting will be seeking to align China's Belt and Road Initiative with the Agenda 2063 of the African Union as well as the UN 2030 Agenda on Sustainable Development." This can only mean one thing; China is keen on being a major player not just in Africa but globally.

In his book, Up and Out of Poverty, Xi Jinping gives the analogy of a weak hatchling that becomes the first to fly. It is not difficult to see that he is alluding to the global underdog who trumps stronger opponents.

"Once we begin to fly," he writes, "of course we must strive to fly across the sea, weather the storms of the international market, and live through commodity economy in the world".

Translating these thoughts into action is enough to get both the US and its ally, the UK, worried. According to some reports, China has lined up $60 billion in loans that it intends to give African countries. This is in addition to the infrastructure projects that the Asian country is funding in Africa, including the Standard Gauge Railway in Kenya that is eventually expected to end up in Kigali, Rwandi, via Uganda. Given China's growing appetite for raw materials, and its aggressive marketing of its processed goods in African markets, such investments can only solidify its hold on African leaders, not to mention natural resources.

Yet, barely 15 years ago, China was a relatively minor player in Africa. According to one Japanese scholar, China was borrowing from Japan at four per cent with a grace period of 20 years and lending the same money to Africa at eight per cent with a grace period of 10 years.


"China is looking good with our money in Africa," said the scholar in a 2005 interview.

But it is not only money that China borrowed from Japan.

During Mr Daniel arap Moi's administration, Japan was lending money and funding infrastructure projects in Kenya without making demands for political reforms or respect for human rights. This was at a time when western donors, including the IMF and World Bank, were tying aid to democratisation. China opted for the Japanese model and to this day, even as its influence grows, it has never been bothered with accountability, democratisation and political reforms. It has, instead, adopted a "willing lender, willing borrower" approach. The democratic credentials of the borrower is of no consequence. And this, too, is enough to make the West worried especially given the political developments in Zimbabwe, Tanzania, Uganda, South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo, not to mention the fluid situation in Ethiopia and Somalia.


This is why Kenya is important to the US and UK. As a regional economic powerhouse, and given its role in stabilising Somalia and South Sudan, both the US and the UK are keen to court President Kenyatta and leverage his influence in the region in the hope that they can recruit him to slow down China's dalliance with regional governments and also to turn the trade tide westwards given that today, China is Africa's biggest trading partner. Of course, both the US and the UK will be keen to expand their co-operation with Kenya from military engagement to more strategic trade, tourism and investment partnerships both at home and in the region.

The question is: Will President Kenyatta play ball? More importantly, will he leverage this newfound interest to wangle concessions that will be beneficial to the country? The answers to these critical questions will be known in coming days.