China's foreign minister visits Kenya amid unease over rising debt

Chinas foreign minister Wang Yi. [Courtesy]

China’s foreign minister began a visit to Kenya yesterday, where the government has relied on Chinese loans to develop infrastructure but faces criticism over the resulting debt burden.

The Kenyan foreign ministry described the visit by Wang Yi, who is also state councillor, as “historic”.

It said security, health, climate change and green technology transfer would be discussed and new bilateral agreements signed.

Kenya is the second of three stops on Wang’s African tour, after Eritrea and before Comoros.

China has lent African countries billions of dollars as part of President Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), including $5 billion (Sh565 billion) for the construction of a modern railway from the Kenyan port of Mombasa.

That model has been evolving, partly under the strain of the Covid-19 pandemic and its economic fallout and partly because of a backlash from African critics against rising debt levels. China is shifting from hard infrastructure loans to efforts to boost trade.

Among critics of Kenya’s reliance on Chinese funding is Kimani Ichung’wah, a ruling party lawmaker who has become a critic of the government. “It is a debt trap and they should start renegotiating,” he told Reuters before Wang’s visit, complaining that the interest rates on Chinese loans were exorbitant.

Ichung’wah is backing William Ruto, estranged deputy to President Uhuru Kenyatta, to take over the presidency in an election scheduled for August, and said that if Ruto won his government would seek new terms for the loan repayments.

As a member of the United Nations Security Council and the African Union’s top body for dealing with conflicts on the continent, Kenya is a major player in African diplomacy.

Eritrea is one of the poorest and most isolated nations in the world. China has not said publicly what the purpose of Wang’s visit was.