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Munene: Why we must look beyond China for our interests

COMMENTARY
By By Henry Munene | May 17th 2014

By Henry Munene

The Sh327billion Standard Gauge Railway ‘deal’ signed between Kenya and China was the greatest highlight of the last one week. 

The loan, signed during Premier Li Keqiang’s visit last weekend, was part of 17 deals, which included a Sh850 million package for bolstering the war against poaching. Coming a year after China extended another loan of Sh425billion, the new deals were sure to set tongues wagging.

First, China seems to be on an all-out mission to convince the world they are out to work with Africa as “equal partners” and without “lecturing us”, to borrow a phrase from Ugandan President Museveni. I must admit compared to the Bretton-Woods’ Structural Adjustment Programmes and other dipsy-doodle foreign aid myths that have failed us in the past, huge infrastructure projects of the type the Chinese have embarked on in Africa hold the key to unlocking Africa’s potential. Of course, China is in it for its own geopolitical and economic interest. One, China needs energy for its industries and is racing against the US for global power.

Africa, with its vast natural resources — like the coal lying beneath Mui basin in Kitui — is a crucial cog in the wheel that is expected to put the red dragon on top of the world. For this reason, China is keen to score high marks among African leaders by going easy on ‘lecturing’ them on ‘internal affairs’. But from where I sit, that is not a good thing, as it indicates China would be willing to do business with African governments irrespective of how they treat their subjects.

For truth be told, even as we reap the goodies from the east, we need to acknowledge that this country has come this far through a fairly ‘non-aligned’ stance in geopolitical affairs of the type typified by the current relations between China and the West.

So are we China’s ‘equal partners’? Not even by a long shot! First, the Chinese loans have pushed our debt to more than Sh2.4 trillion, up from Sh1.8 trillion when Jubilee took over last year.

And we won’t even go into the scary loan repayment math!

While I’m all for long-term projects to open up our economy and fight poverty, we must strategically not shut out the rest of the world in our newfound love for things oriental.

We just need to consider that Kenya, a country of only 41 million souls, imports a whopping Sh274billion worth of goods from China. This while China’s 1.4b population, imports from Kenya goods worth a paltry Sh342 million.  Trade imbalance aside, China needs to go beyond monetary support against poaching, as crucial reports indicate game trophies enjoy a lucrative market in the East. Thus, while Sino-African ties may awaken the west to modern global realities, we need to borrow a leaf from Kenya’s Cold War-era leadership.

By choosing not to huddle ourselves into either the pro-communist East or pro-capitalist West, Kenya benefitted from Russia, mainly  through Jaramogi Odinga’s ties and from the West — through Tom Mboya.

As the two camps flooded us with goodies, we became the regional economic powerhouse we undoubtedly are today.

Remember, it is this non-aligned stance that led to economic game-changers such as Mboya’s airlifts to Western universities that enabled Kenya to get an enviable  pool of technocrats that later became like a who’s who in the corridors of power and business.  It is these airlifts that took US President Obama’s father to the US, and ipso facto made it possible for us to proudly produce the first US President with African ties. So, where would we be if we had chosen to ‘eat’ from one camp, so to speak?

As we seek to craft our foreign policy in the Look East era, my two cents worth would be, look both East and continue West... Actually, look everywhere! As Hans Morgenthau, the father of modern International Relations would have it, modern States are not defined by permanent friendships and enmity.

 Simply  put, a smart country today must get the maximum interest it can get from all corners of the world. 

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