Kenya defying odds to alter imbalance in trade with China

When President Uhuru Kenyatta boarded the plane to Beijing, to meet the leader of the world’s largest country and second largest economy, the prevailing sentiment among Kenyan social media influencers was sombre. Having spent a few minutes listening to the sceptics, the cynics and the critics, you would be forgiven for thinking that instead of attending the Second Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation conference, along with 36 other world leaders, Kenyatta was on his way to be served public humiliation. 

While this sentiment has been overblown and exaggerated, it has not been entirely unfounded. At times, the relationship between Kenya and China can be perceived as unjust. This is understandable, given the dramatic differences in hard power between the two countries, but also because the relationship is tainted by frantic warnings from our allies in the US and Europe and from international institutions like the IMF. Hence the negative murmurs that accompanied Kenyatta’s departure from Nairobi, anticipating his return with nothing more than more debt.

Following reports from the conference, however, those fear mongers should start eating humble pie. First of all, the conference served as an important opportunity for China’s President Xi Jinping to demonstrate that his government is aware of the concerns around its foreign policy, making it clear that it does not ignore them. There are two primary fears surrounding China’s ambitious global infrastructure project, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI): Destroying Africa by spreading corruption and by mounting it with an impossibly hefty debt.

The BRI is a project of historical magnitude, echoing that of the ancient Silk Road that connected Asia to Europe and Africa. In its 2.0 model, the initiative ($90 billion invested since 2013) will link those markets together through investments in maritime, road, and rail projects, at a scale that has been unprecedented in the 21st century. After centuries of colonial exploitation, the US, UK and Europe became the chief modernisers of independent Kenya’s infrastructure, as they did across the continent. However, critics too must acknowledge that we can no longer exclusively rely on their partnership. In fact, with the BRI, China is filling up the vacuum that was left when the old 20th century powers opted to abandon their positions of global leadership.

In this context, last week’s statements by President Jinping about “zero tolerance” for corruption and commitment to transparency, fiscal sustainability, and to preventing debt risks are all positive signals. His assurances come after push back for the initiative by countries, from Malaysia to Sierra Leone, and they go a long way to re-anchoring the BRI in safer waters.

Beyond what Jinping said of the general multilateral terms of the BRI, the conference marked an important milestone in Kenyan-Chinese bilateral relations. A deal that was signed during Kenyatta’s visit gives our farmers the opportunity to export avocado to the Chinese market. The deal also allows products like flowers, mangoes, beans, peanut, meat, herbs and macadamia to be sold to the world’s second largest economy.

Yet the deal goes beyond the immediate and direct benefits that are due to our farmers. It restarts Kenyan-Chinese relations and it puts them on a more equal footing. China will naturally remain the larger country of the two, but with the Avocado initiative, Kenyatta has begun to alter this balance.

Don’t be surprised when our critics rush to belittle this deal. Majority of Kenyans, however, will appreciate the significance of this visit.

Furthermore, they will take pride in having a President who stands up to his Chinese counterpart and brings home fruits of his initiative.

- The writer is a banker