Kenya's dilemma as WTO meeting sets stage for US and China clash

President William Ruto and First Lady Rachel Ruto at the reception hosted by US President Joe Biden (left) during the 77th United Nations General Assembly. [White House]

The competing trade interests of Western countries and their Asian counterparts, led by China, are expected to play out at the World Trade Organisation’s 13th Ministerial Conference (MC13) slated for February 26 to 29 in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.

One of the multi-lateral areas where China versus US conflict is expected to unfold heavily will be swaying the crucial Africa voting block either to support or frustrate certain positions that currently influence world trade.

Prof Peter Kagwanja, the CEO of Africa Policy Institute, argues that Africa’s position is likely going to suffer because of the geopolitical competition between Western countries, led by the US, against China. Among issues on the agenda are intellectual property rights which is also an area of competition between the US and China.

Kagwanja argues that Kenya finds itself in a very awkward position because she has now moved from looking east to looking west under President William Ruto, a shift from the policies of Presidents Daniel arap Moi, Mwai Kibaki and Uhuru Kenyatta.

Big disadvantage

“We are at a big disadvantage as Kenya cannot afford to be neutral and pursue her interests in pressing for a more equitable trading regime since we are constrained by our renewed marriage with the West,” says Kagwanja.

The other contentious agenda will be on e-commerce where trade ministers from the 164 member countries are expected to sign a moratorium for all members to remove tariffs and enable them to trade freely in cyberspace.

The meeting will also discuss the issue of fishing subsidies for an agreement to be reached that no countries will be allowed to fish in other territories without permission and those that have suffered such exploitation either be compensated or given subsidies.

“Western countries are opposed to subsidies while China and many other countries, including those in Africa, support the agenda and so it will be interesting to see on which side Kenya will be,” says Kagwanja.

Observers say the MC13 will be a huge event where the US will try to influence other countries, especially those in the developing south, to stymie Chinese e-commerce dominance and the leading role it is playing in spreading smart technology around the world.

The conference, to be chaired by Dr Thani bin Ahmed Al Zeyoudi, UAE’s Minister of State for Foreign Trade, will also review the functioning of the multilateral trading system and proffer action on the future work of the WTO.

Western allies

Analysts and think tanks in Africa say the Americans and their Western allies have tried to paint the Chinese as unethical and reckless people without values, with some allegedly engaging in criminal acts in Africa while causing harm to communities and environmental degradation.

To counter China’s growing influence on trade across the world, western critics have also engaged in media campaigns claiming the Chinese are dealing in counterfeits and production of substandard products.

Kagwanja says it is the consumers who should complain about the quality of goods and not those competing in production, further pointing out that the low purchasing power on the African continent also makes Chinese products more affordable.

“That is not to say there are no Chinese crooks but crime is now transnational and corruption is equally rife in Western countries and in many businesses from countries that are operating on the continent,” said Kagwanja.

Anti-China propaganda featured heavily in the 2022 presidential campaigns in Kenya when a post appeared on the Kenya Kwanza presidential candidate William Ruto’s Twitter account (now X) that the Chinese had invaded Kenya and some were even roasting maize on Nairobi streets.

A photoshopped face of a Chinese man planted on the image of a Kenyan roasting maize on the streets was treated with memes and thousands of retweets as the anti-China campaign was mounted.

“How many cobs of maize will you roast to enable you to buy a ticket to Beijing? How many sacks will you roast unless probably you want to sell to everybody in the city centre every day, which is not possible,” says Kagwanja.

But here was a situation where pseudoscience was used on the Twitter account of a presidential candidate in a national election to persuade the citizens.

Scholars however think the emerging trade wars have come after Western countries belatedly learned that the Chinese had deeply entrenched themselves through heavy infrastructural investment and other bilateral support for critical institutions in countries such as Kenya.

In Kenya for example, for over a decade now, China has equipped TIVET institutions with artisans manufacturing machinery which can produce some spare parts such as nuts and bolts in counties.

Production process

And because the whole manufacturing and production process is computerized, learners can make spare parts at the TIVETS as long they have a phase power connection.

Challenges facing such technology include patenting of products for sale across borders because Western countries argue that it is a breach of intellectual property rights even though the manufacturing raw material is sourced locally.

These are among the issues that African countries should be raising at the WTO meetings because trade practices in the world today are unfavourable to the manufacturing industry on the continent.

The WTO is the main battleground of trade wars between the West and China for geopolitical competition and that is also the only UN-recognized forum where Taiwan is officially allowed to be a member.

It has been argued that Taiwan’s membership binds the US to WTO and it cannot exit the organisation even when unhappy with decisions made because the moment it exits, there is the risk of Taiwan also being kicked out due to China’s influence.

And so the idea is to keep Taiwan there with a strong voice, through US and Western support in matters involving world trade and make life difficult for China.

In Dubai, the agenda at the meeting will also be heavy on agricultural trade and food security an area countries, including as Kenya will pay keen interest.

Ignore propaganda

Kagwanja said Kenya should ignore propaganda being spread that the Chinese are corrupt and can never engage in straight business with African countries.

“Why would they be worried about what we are doing with the Chinese? Are they the prefects of behaviour and cultures? Why is it that to the West any project built by the Chinese must be faulty or does not meet the quality even if it is based on Western standards?” says Kagwanja.

Those are some of the questions that must be asked at WTO meetings and other international trade and commerce negotiating forums because a shift has emerged in the world over the last 20 years where anti-China propaganda can no longer stand.

China has emerged as one of the largest economies in the world, almost overtaking the US with many countries not only in Africa but also some in Europe, borrowing money for development from the Asian economic giant.

Economists also agree that China is now one of the most advanced countries in the military, infrastructural development, robotics, artificial intelligence and solar clean energy technologies.

The West has however countered that development with allegations that China is stealing their technology to develop their advanced computerized systems.

“That is done to make Chinese experts and their technology look bad, not only in the West but also in other countries that are allied to them, even when they are the ones who invented 5G before anyone else,” says Prof Kagwanja.

He says the hidden agenda is to ban Chinese companies so that 5G does not become the de-facto means of connecting people globally because that will empower, not only the Chinese but also smaller countries with young tech-savvy populations.

The propaganda is also mounted to discredit research done by Chinese experts just because they are not allowed in American and Western universities, factories, hospitals or other crucial areas to stem their influence.

Their exclusion is done over claims they are likely to steal Western technology in countries that are supported by the West.