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US links Kenyan ports to Chinese military base plan

Navy ship at Lamu Port, October 2020. [Kelvin Karani, Standard]

The United States (US) has repeated its controversial claim China is eyeing a military base in Kenya.

Washington now claims in a new report that Kenya’s port facilities such as the Mombasa and Lamu ports not only offer China strategic commercial and trade advantages in the Indian Ocean sea transport corridor but also provide it with “dual-use” potential for military functions.

“While promoting itself as a peace broker, China seeks opportunities to expand its military presence and promote its role as a strong yet helpful partner in Africa,” states the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission in its 2022 report to Congress published recently.

China, which has funded multibillion-shillings infrastructure projects in Kenya, including the Mombasa-Nairobi standard gauge railway (SGR), in 2018, completed its first military base in Djibouti, just near a critical US military base.

This was the first overseas Chinese military facility, a coastal logistics base, which also aims to resupply naval vessels taking part in peacekeeping and humanitarian missions.

“There were no reported major developments for China’s military base in Djibouti, but US government reports indicate China may be weighing its options of where to build its next base,” says the US report seen by Financial Standard.

“Similar to Djibouti’s port infrastructure, which serves commercial and military functions, the facilities in Angola, Kenya, Seychelles, Tanzania, and Namibia all have existing ports that would fit well with China’s dual-use basing model,” added the commission’s report.

A US Department of Defense’s 2021 report on China’s military power published last year alleged that Beijing has ambitions for additional military facilities on the continent and has “likely considered” Angola, Kenya, Seychelles, and Tanzania for its next base site and has probably made overtures to Namibia.”

Kenya’s second deep-water port in Lamu was completed last year by the China Communications Construction Company.

The $3 billion (Sh365 billion) Lamu deep-water port has 32 berths, 29 of which will be run by the private sector, making it the largest deep-water port in Sub-saharan Africa. 

The port network is part of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative, a multi-trillion-dollar infrastructure and development programme that Beijing has been pushing for in Kenya and around the world for nearly a decade.

Irresponsible reports

Past US reports of local Chinese military base ambitions have previously been vehemently dismissed by Chinese authorities in Nairobi. “The information... is totally false,” a Chinese spokesperson said in Nairobi last year in reference to the US claim.

“Their latest report is just the same as the previous fact-neglecting and bias-brimming. Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson has urged them to stop issuing irresponsible reports year-after-year, and” abandon the outdated cold-war mentality and zero-sum game mindset.”

The Chinese embassy spokesperson had not responded to our queries by the time of going to press. The US military operates a coastal military base in Manda Bay, Lamu close to the Somali border. Washington in its latest report at the same time accuses Beijing of stalling debt restructuring and relief efforts for countries like Kenya.

“The Chinese government’s historical unwillingness to significantly renegotiate debt terms with borrowing countries has also led to delays in debt relief from international financial institutions, which often require recipient countries to restructure debt owed to other creditors,” says the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission in its report.

China, one of the largest government creditors to Kenya, in August this year, said it will forgive 23 interest-free loans to 17 African countries and redirect $10 billion (Sh1.2 trillion) of its International Monetary Fund reserves to nations on the continent.

But Chinese authorities in Nairobi explained at the time that Kenya was left out of the deal as it is classified as lower-middle income, which the new Beijing scheme does not apply to. The US-China Economic and Security Review Commission, which authored the new report was created by the US Congress in October 2000.

Its legislative mandate is to monitor, investigate, and submit to Congress an annual report on the “national security implications of the bilateral trade and economic relationship between the US and China” and to provide recommendations, where appropriate, for legislative and administrative action.

Beijing and Washington are fiercely angling for trade and investment deals in Kenya under the new William Ruto administration.

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