Kenya and China seek to bolster bilateral ties

Eric Biegon China Plus Published: 2017-08-30 21:42:46
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By Eric Biegon

The destinies of China and Kenya have been intertwined for centuries. Records show China's maritime fleets reached the east coast of Africa, around Malindi and Lamu as early as the 14th century.

That Kenya was a major player in the ancient silk trade route cements the relationship all the more. Kenya's role as China's hub of choice in Africa for the 21st Century Silk Road economic belt is very much down to its geographical location, and an important feature of Kenya's ties to China to date.

Kenyan Minister for Transport and Infrastructure James Macharia (C) and the Managing Director of the Kenya Railways Corporation Atanas Maina (R, front) attend the reception ceremony of the first batch of locomotives for the Mombasa-Nairobi standard gauge railway in Mombasa, Kenya, on Jan. 11, 2017.[Photo: Xinhua]

Kenyan Minister for Transport and Infrastructure James Macharia (C) and the Managing Director of the Kenya Railways Corporation Atanas Maina (R, front) attend the reception ceremony of the first batch of locomotives for the Mombasa-Nairobi standard gauge railway in Mombasa, Kenya, on Jan. 11, 2017.[Photo: Xinhua]

The new One Belt One Road (OBOR) framework is already a living mechanism in Kenya judging by the fruits emanating from the ongoing infrastructural and industrial transformations. The East African country is certainly no peripheral player. 

Kenya can indeed proudly claim a central position in the multi-billion dollar OBOR mechanism having been among the first 30 countries which helped bring the initiative into the world in May 2017.

It was championed by Chinese President Xi Jinping, who saw it as a new model of cooperation that would stimulate common development and prosperity. 

The initiative principally aims to bring together countries in Africa, Europe, the Middle East and Asia through an ambitious program of infrastructure, economic and political cooperation. For the developing countries that have enlisted in this concept, economic participation is seen as the key. 

This Chinese-led concept has gained traction in Kenya and it's easy to see why. Even though it still regards itself as a developing nation, China's economic success is setting an example the world must follow. Beijing is hoping this success can be replicated especially in Kenya and across Africa.

Chinese leader Xi Jinping says China is keen to help facilitate new opportunities in Kenya and other African countries to unleash their potential for strong development.

It was a message he reiterated recently when he extended a congratulatory message to President Uhuru Kenyatta, after he was announced the winner of the August 2017 presidential election.

In his message, Xi said that he highly valued the development of the China-Kenya relationship, and hoped to work with President Kenyatta to further advance their comprehensive strategic cooperative partnership, so as to better benefit the two countries and their peoples.

Xi emphasized the importance of their decades-old cooperation saying "China and Kenya are good friends, partners and brothers, and China stands ready to strengthen cooperation and boost bilateral ties with the Kenyan side."

China's path to prosperity, for instance, can be traced to its own domestic connectivity. China has developed a robust railway, road and air infrastructure throughout the country. It also boasts thousands and thousands of miles of expressways, more than any other country in the world.

The Asian economic giant has built an extensive modern cross-country railway network connecting regions that are thousands of miles apart. The country has also developed many airports in the last 30 years. Judging by this trend, it would be fair to say that China's economic goals hinge on transport.

Africa's Industrialization

The bountiful benefits of building such an elaborate infrastructure is something that developing countries, and especially Kenya, are indeed considering.

Kenya's president Uhuru Kenyatta recently underlined that infrastructure brings prosperity and that African governments must work hard to strengthen connectivity on the continent.

"Roads, electricity, telecommunications and water empower our people, and bring prosperity and freedom. China has learned this lesson well and so has Africa," said Kenyatta.

This exactly captures the thoughts of scholars and economic experts who insist that the lack of connectivity has been the greatest impediment to Africa's growth. Both as individual countries and as a region, the continent lacks efficient transport infrastructure.

"Africa is well endowed with rich natural resources. The continent has huge potential. It has the capacity to set up huge industries. The biggest problem, however, is that even neighboring countries are not connected. Movement is restricted," noted Prof Wang Yiwei of Renmin University in Beijing.

In his opinion, Africa has the capacity to reduce rising poverty levels. To address this, Prof Wang says the developing countries of Africa, individually and collectively must pursue industrialization. This he says will help Africa increase self-development capacity.

"To be specific, they need to improve the region's infrastructure, and put in place a secure and efficient network of land, sea and air routes, lifting their connectivity to a higher level." He says

Kenya's Example

Within Africa, the fruits of Belt and Road infrastructural connectivity are already being felt in Kenya. The construction of the USD 3.27 billion Standard Gauge Railway and the subsequent expansion of the port of Mombasa by the Chinese has seen the country attract many multinationals already expressing their desire to invest in the East African country.

President Kenyatta insists that cooperation between Kenya and China in this regard will create "a win-win situation when our people have the skills, assets and financing necessary to participate in the development of the infrastructure corridors that will enhance connectivity, support trade and reduce the cost of doing business between our countries." 

He noted that this will secure good jobs and protect Kenyans from the burden of imprudent debt.

The SGR, which was successfully commissioned on 31st May 2017 is connecting Kenya's coastal city of Mombasa to the capital Nairobi. The next phases of SGR expansion will connect Nairobi to Naivasha, Kisumu, Malaba then Uganda, Rwanda, and South Sudan. The wheels of this phase of railway expansion will soon be in motion, if sentiments from Chinese and Kenyan authorities are anything to go by.

Lamu port is another project that is being undertaken by the Chinese. Once complete, the port will connect South Sudan and Ethiopia. Economic experts hold the view that this will fuel the potential for increased economic growth and development of Kenya and all countries involved. 

These gigantic benefits may not be visible at present but President Kenyatta has hailed this partnership saying it will catalyze the country's growth into 2030 and beyond.

"We must view the substantial investment in Railway as a worthy investment to underpin the regional economic agenda. An economy only thrives in the foundation of proper infrastructure." He said.

Transfer of industries

At the heart of this initiative is the spirit of sharing and China is leading in this regard. At present, China is restructuring and upgrading its industrial structure and exporting excess manufacturing capacity.

Economic analysts argue that due to the rising cost of labor, China's labor-intensive industries are transferring some of their manufacturing to Africa. The continent stands to benefit greatly from this shift.

Other than Ethiopia which has successfully established textile industries from China in the last few years, Kenya, Rwanda, and Tanzania are other African countries that are said to be pursuing China's textile investments through planned development of industrial parks.

China's growing presence in Kenya cannot be overemphasized. Statistics show that by the end of 2015, Chinese companies had invested heavily in Kenya's construction, retail, health, telecommunications and clean energy sectors.

A recent World Bank report noted that Chinese businesses in Kenya employed on average 360 local workers, more than the average of 147 by other foreign companies in the East African country.

According to the Chinese ambassador to Kenya, Dr. Liu Xianfa, creating employment opportunities is one aspect of upholding corporate social responsibility.

"All Chinese companies are also creating win-win outcomes by transferring technology, contributing to communities and cooperating with local government," He said recently at a forum to discuss China-Kenya economy and trade.

Yet, people to people exchange is gaining momentum as more Kenyans travel to China for various businesses, training opportunities and capacity building missions. The number of Chinese counterparts moving in the opposite direction for various engagements has been in the ascendancy too.

There is no doubt that the ongoing cooperation mechanisms will indeed provide legitimate avenues to cultivate and tighten bilateral ties between the two countries.

(Eric Biegon is a news reporter at Kenya Broadcasting Corporation) 

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