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Turning point as Kenya looks East

Updated: 2013-08-16 08:57
By Bob Wekesa ( China Daily)

Turning point as Kenya looks East

Presidential visit to create a new framework for bilateral cooperation with China

When Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta arrives in China on Aug 18, it will be the culmination of a trip that has been long in the works. Since his inauguration in April, there has been high anticipation that he would make his first major bilateral trip to China in view of the circumstances under which the Jubilee coalition won a hard-fought electoral campaign in March. In May, the grapevine both in China and Kenya was abuzz with "news" that Kenyatta would travel to Beijing within days.

Kenyatta's visit is expected to generate a high level of interest globally. It will be no surprise if the Chinese and international media cast the visit in a wider, more global perspective, unlike frequent visits by other African leaders.

Think tanks and research outfits have in recent times focused on global power shifts, noting a tendency for African countries to embrace a look-East foreign policy away from traditional donor countries of the West. Kenyatta's visit will likely be framed as a continuation of this decline of the Western narrative, more so considering that Kenya has long been seen as tightly integrated into a Western worldview.

Recent years have witnessed sustainable development of bilateral trade relations between China and Kenya. According to China's Customs, in 2012, China-Kenya trade volume increased to $2.84 billion, 20.7 times that in 2000. China is also the second-largest trade partner of Kenya. China's major exports to Africa include machinery products, electronics, vehicles and spare parts, furniture, iron and steel products, footwear, plastics and tires. The major imports from Kenya are iron and manganese ores and slag, copper, raw hides and skins, vegetable textile fiber, plastics, coffee and tea.

The Kenyan president will be looking to deepen these economic relations so that his country can maintain an economic growth rate and its pole position as East and Central Africa's powerhouse.

True, the president has already visited the United Kingdom, South Africa, Uganda, Ethiopia, Tanzania, Nigeria and the Democratic Republic of Congo since taking office. However, in all these sojourns, Kenyatta has been more keen on overarching multilateral engagements than on expressly bilateral forays, the exception being his detour from Abuja to Kinshasa in June. Beijing will therefore be the first focused foreign destination for Kenyatta, outside of Africa.

That China will be Kenyatta's focused maiden overseas excursion speaks volumes about the pecking order and global significance of China in Jubilee's geopolitical strategy. Advertently or inadvertently, Kenyatta will be sending a signal that aside from his oft declared Afro-centric inclination, China is equally high up there as a key cog in his foreign policy architecture.

Indeed, the trip is not that novel considering the Jubilee team's push back against the "choices have consequences" and "only essential contact" phraseology at the height of electioneering and the subsequent arms-length relations with the West.

US President Barack Obama's skirting of Kenya during his recent trip to Africa and the nonchalant response, bordering on the contemptuous, by Nairobi, caps motivations for Kenyatta's look-East policy.

Telling is the fact that during a recent courtesy call on Kenyatta by the Chinese Ambassador to Kenya Li Guangyuan, mention was made of the intention to elevate the diplomatic relations to strategic partnership. While China enjoys diplomatic relations with more than 50 countries in Africa, it is only with a few countries that it has a strategic partnership framework, a calibration that indicates ramped up geo-economic interests.

Analysts will likely confirm the long-held viewpoint that Kenya looks to China as a counterweight to the fallout with the West, particularly in the wake of the ongoing arraignment of President Kenyatta and his deputy, William Ruto, at the International Criminal Court.

These geo-strategic considerations will dovetail with pragmatic economic interests. From one viewpoint, Kenya's look-East stance is seen as a means of fashioning alternative sources of development assistance in view of strained relations with the traditional Western sources. Given recent tale-tell signs of resource paucity that could militate against the Kenyan government's ambitious development agenda, alternative sources are crucial, not only to plug deficits, but also to ensure that the Jubilee team has a favorable scorecard with which to solicit votes in the next general election.

Kenyatta's China visit is indeed replete with other nuances that portend interesting times ahead, not just for Kenya and China but for geopolitics of the post-Cold War era.

The author is a PhD candidate at Communication University of China and visiting researcher at the University of Witwatersrand, Johannesburg. The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.

(China Daily Africa Weekly 08/16/2013 page10)


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