Chinese Foreign Minister visits Kenya amid unrest over rising debt

Wang Yi, State Councilor and Foreign Minister of China, waves as he leaves a press conference in Tokyo, Japan, November 24, 2020. REUTERS / Issei Kato / Pool / File Photo

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NAIROBI, Jan.5 (Reuters) – China’s Foreign Minister on Wednesday began a visit to Kenya, where the government has relied on Chinese loans to develop infrastructure but faces criticism over the debt burden that result.

The Kenyan Foreign Ministry described the visit of Wang Yi, also a State Councilor, as “historic”. He said safety, health, climate change and green technology transfer would be discussed and new bilateral agreements would be signed.

Kenya is the second of three legs of Wang’s African tour, after Eritrea and ahead of Comoros. Eritrea joined Chinese President Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in November, a long-term plan to finance and build infrastructure connecting China to the rest of the world.

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China has loaned African countries billions of dollars under the BRI, including $ 5 billion for the construction of a modern railway from the Kenyan port of Mombasa. Read more

This model has evolved, partly under the pressure of the COVID-19 pandemic and its economic fallout and partly because of a reaction from African critics against rising debt levels. China is shifting from physical infrastructure loans to efforts to boost trade. Read more

Among critics of Kenya’s dependence on Chinese funding is Kimani Ichung’wah, a ruling party lawmaker who has become a critic of the government.

“It’s a debt trap and they should start renegotiating,” he told Reuters ahead of Wang’s visit, complaining that the interest rates on Chinese loans were sky-high.

Ichung’wah is backing William Ruto, former deputy to President Uhuru Kenyatta, to take the presidency in an election slated for August, and has said if Ruto wins his government will seek new terms for loan repayments.

Eritrea, one of the poorest and most isolated countries in the world, is embroiled in the Tigray conflict in northern Ethiopia which has destabilized the Horn of Africa region.

Lina Benabdallah, an expert on China-Africa relations at the University of Wake Forest in the United States, said Wang’s visit shows Beijing’s interest in restoring stability in the Horn and improving access to it. Africa via the Eritrean ports of the Red Sea.

Peter Kagwanja, professor of international relations at the University of Nairobi, said the Comoros shutdown was also likely linked to business interests. The Indian Ocean archipelago sits on the edge of a maritime trade route known in China as the Sea Silk Road and considered strategically important by Beijing, he said.

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Reporting by Duncan Miriri, editing by Estelle Shirbon, Timothy Heritage and Angus MacSwan

Our standards: Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.


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