US makes fresh Kenya pitch to counter China

US Ambassador to Kenya Kyle McCarter

US Ambassador to Kenya Kyle McCarter on Monday threw a jab at Chinese relations with Kenya, suggesting it is heavily skewed in favour of the Asian economic giant and saddles the latter with debt. Mr McCarter, speaking at the American Chamber of Commerce (AmCham) Business Summit in Nairobi, at the same time sought to play up his country’s strategy, describing it as seeking a sustainable partnership that “directly serves the needs of the Kenyan people.”

“The US model focuses on long-term growth and sustainability, not debt,” he said. “Our strategy recognises that high-quality foreign direct investment is essential for Kenya’s development. It underscores our longstanding commitment to Kenya and to supporting our Kenyan partners as the continent transitions from foreign assistance to sustainable financial independence.”

But the US’s strategy by its top diplomat in Nairobi also appears to mark a shift from President Donald Trump’s administration’s engagement with Kenya that is widely perceived to be hostile.

“The impression has been that the US is hostile to Kenyan interests,” says international relations expert Macharia Munene. “Compared to other powers competing with the US, Washington has continued to appear like a ‘dubious’ friend to Kenya. It therefore needs to rethink its image,” says Prof Munene, a lecturer at the United States International University in Nairobi, citing the US’s recent move to block Kenya’s request for the classification of the Somalia-based Al-Shabaab militants as a terrorist group.

Washington’s latest pronouncements come as the US contends with a diminishing clout not just in Kenya but also across Africa. Beijing has characterised its “Belt and Road” initiative as a win-win for its aspirations to become a global trade leader and developing economies’ desire to fund transportation infrastructure. Experts also say Beijing has filled the vacuum created by a perceived shrinking American presence in Kenya and other countries.

Mr Trump has faced accusations of apathy towards Africa. He has offered few positive remarks about Africa since coming into office and has not launched any US programme of the size and scope of President Clinton’s Agoa trade preferences, President George W Bush’s anti-Aids initiative and President Barack Obama’s plan to bring electricity to the unlit parts of the continent.

Uhuru Kenyatta’s policy of economic diplomacy in the initial years of his presidency mirrors that of his predecessor Mwai Kibaki, which looked East. In a bid to counter this newfound love between Beijing and Kenya, Western powers have recently raised concerns about Chinese loans, arguing they are pushing African nations such as Kenya deeper into unsustainable debt, eating up a significant chunk of their revenues and limiting their investments in capital projects that generate jobs for unemployed graduate youth.

Former US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in March last year slammed Beijing’s involvement in Africa, saying the Asian dragon “encourages dependency using opaque contracts, predatory loan practices, and corrupt deals that mire nations in debt and undercut their sovereignty, denying them their long-term, self-sustaining growth.”

On Monday, Mr McCarter appeared to ratchet up this rhetoric by Washington, even as he highlighted Washington’s new strategy, which he said seeks to expand commercial ties by advancing “peace and security; supporting stability, good government, and self-reliance across the entire continent.”

Mr McCarter said the Business Summit, which was also addressed by President Kenyatta, was the start of an important step in the deepening US-Kenya relationship.

US companies, he said, deliver “world leading technologies and innovation” that could support President Kenyatta’s Big Four agenda and economic growth and have more widespread benefits to Kenyans.

The US government currently provides nearly Sh100 billion in annual assistance to Kenya for a number of programmes, including health care, agriculture, education and security. The US Export-Import Bank recently established a $400 million (about Sh40 billion) line of credit to finance US exports for infrastructure projects in Kenya.

Mr McCarter said unlike China, which he alleged tasks its citizens to undertake and even manage projects developed and financed by Chinese companies, the US believes in “hiring Kenyans to manage, lead, and do the skilled work” to create “the best path to long-term profitability and self- reliance.”

During the event, McCarter announced a new partnership and funding opportunity with eight Kenyan counties — including Isiolo, Kakamega, Kiambu, Kisii, Kisumu, Makueni, Mombasa, and Nakuru. It remains to be seen whether Mr Trump’s new overtures to Kenya will pay off and curtail Beijing’s mounting influence. Experts have urged Kenya to take advantage of this renewed interest by countries like the US, the UK and Russia.

“With keen interest from not only China, US, Japan and now Russia, countries like Kenya should take advantage and use the new ties to make the economic gains they so desperately need,” said Uran Kyzy, a researcher at the TRT World Research Centre, a global policy institute earlier. In his address on Monday, Mr Kenyatta maintained that Kenya is open to mutually beneficial trade and investments with American firms.

The President noted the low trade volumes between Kenya and the US, but expressed optimism the newly agreed strategic partnership between the two countries will help lift the numbers.

“I am convinced we can do better than this; and there is a lot to build upon, “said Mr Kenyatta. “I, however, note with satisfaction that a wide range of US companies are investing in Kenya and across the East Africa region.”
Kenya exported to the US goods valued at $661 million (Sh66.1 billion) in 2018, up from $588 million (Sh58.8 billion) in 2017. This ranks the US among the top three export destinations in the world for Kenya after Uganda and Pakistan, accounting for 7.9 per cent of total exports last year.

US Imports into Kenya on other hand shrank to $315 million (Sh31.5 billion) last year compared to $429 million (Sh42.9 billion) the previous year. Mr McCarter hinted Kenya is a likely beneficiary of another US export window being considered to replace the Africa Growth and Opportunity Act (Agoa) after seven years.

Agoa, which grants the country and 40 other African states quotas and duty-free access to the US market of more than 6,000 product lines, expires in 2025.

Source: Business Daily