Kenya’s President William Ruto is among African leaders who will attend the Third Belt and Road Initiative to mark its 10th anniversary.
Upon his arrival, the President said he will be keen on increasing the depth of Kenya’s relations with China under the New Silk Road to upgrade its infrastructure, adding that this will promote connectivity and facilitate a new era of trade and economic growth in the country/
The $900 billion New Silk Road, also known as Belt and Road Initiative is a global infrastructure development strategy adopted by the Chinese government in 2013 to invest in more than 150 countries and international organizations.
Sports and Youth Minister Ababu Namwamba, who was in China for the Trans-Himalayan forum on international cooperation, said President Ruto’s visit sends a strong signal that Kenya considers China to be an important partner, a key development cooperation friend and partner.
“We are very happy that Kenya is among very few countries from around the world – actually one of three in Africa, that have been invited to the BRI forum,” the minister said.
This is Ruto’s first visit to China since coming to office a year ago, and also comes at a time when Kenya and China are marking 60 years of diplomatic relations later in December.
During the visit, President Ruto will hold talks with his Chinese counterpart, President Xi Jinping, and among the key issues on the agenda include infrastructure development – roads, rail and ports -, trade and investment, digital economy and the debt repayment.
He will deliver a keynote address headlined ‘Digital Economy as a New Source of Growth’ highlighting Kenya’s advancements in Information and Communication Technology and innovation.
Deputy President Rigathi Gachagua on October 6 said President Ruto will be seeking more financing to complete stalled projects as well as seek an extension on the repayment timeline of previous Chinese loans.
“Can we talk to see if you can add us time, so we can pay slowly, and add us a little money so we can finish road construction? If we get $1 billion, we can be able to give these people [contractors] the money they are owed so they can return on site so even as we pay the debt, the roads are completed,” the Deputy President told Inooro FM, a local radio station.
In July this year, President Ruto held talks with China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi in Nairobi, and the two sides committed to enhancing cooperation in the BRI.
Ruto emphasised Kenya’s interest in prioritising road development bilaterally and within the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation framework, saying Nairobi aims to work with Beijing to upgrade roads, develop a new Greenfield terminal and a new runway at the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport and expansion of the ports of Mombasa and Lamu.
During the talks, it also emerged that China would undertake the expansion of the 232km Mau Summit- Rironi highway to the Rift Valley region, which was initially to be executed by France.
The deal is likely to be settled in Beijing following a meeting between Infrastructure Minister Kipchumba Murkomen and a Chinese delegation led by Deng Li, the Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs, in July 2023.
Their discussions were centred on “pending projects in the roads and transport sector as discussed with President Ruto”, setting the stage for the escalation of the deliberations at the highest level during Ruto’s visit.
On July 28, Murkomen also announced Kenya and Uganda had signed a deal to extend the Standard Gauge Railway to Uganda, starting from Naivasha, through Kisumu to the Malaba border, connecting to the Malaba-Kampala route on the Ugandan side.
On September 28, the CS met his counterpart, Li Xiaopeng in Beijing to discuss the infrastructure projects.
Phase 2B from Naivasha to Kisumu is expected to cost Ksh380 billion, while phase 2C, from Kisumu to Malaba, will take another Ksh122.9 billion.
There is also a plan within the Lamu Port-South Sudan-Ethiopia-Transport corridor project to have the line move from Mariakani in the coastal city of Mombasa to Lamu and Isiolo in Northeastern Kenya. From Isiolo, the SGR will be connected to the northeastern town of Moyale, which borders Ethiopia in the North.
But these projects are on the backdrop of a drop in Chinese financial support to Kenya, with latest estimates for the 2023-24 showing a fall to just Ksh1.74 billion, the lowest since 2008. This is a significant drop from the Ksh29.5 billion Kenya received in 2021-22 and Ksh71.2 billion in 2017.
Where does this leave ongoing infrastructure projects being financed by the Chinese, even as Ruto prioritises PPP funding?
The high-level engagements in Beijing will thus be useful in enhancing the bilateral relations following the change of government in September 2022 based on the Kenya Kwanza’s Bottom-Up Economic Transformation Agenda policies and diplomatic priorities and identifying areas of alignment.
China Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Wang Wenbin on August 31 said the main theme of the conference will be connectivity and will demonstrate how BRI will provide a new platform for international economic cooperation and add impetus to participating countries’ development and world economic growth.
“Over the past decade, it [BRI] has become a popular global public good and international cooperation platform…. This is not only the highlight in commemorative events to mark the BRI’s 10th anniversary, but also an important platform for all partners to plan high-quality Belt and Road cooperation,” Wang said.
Chinese Foreign Ministry has said at least 130 countries have confirmed participation, at a time when the BRICS (Brazil, India, China and South Africa) bloc, of which China is an integral member, is expanding and gaining global influence.
China has signed Belt and Road cooperation documents with more than 150 countries and over 30 international organisations. It has established more than 3,000 cooperation projects and galvanised nearly $1 trillion in investments.
Among the countries Beijing has heavily engaged in the region in the last 10 years is Kenya.
The Export-Import Bank of China financed 90 per cent of the Standard Gauge Railway project, while Kenyan contributed the other 10 per cent.
China Road and Bridge Corporation did the installation and has been involved in other projects such as the Lamu port, Kipevu Oil Terminal, four bypasses in Nairobi, the Expressway from JKIA to Westlands business hub and the Likoni floating bridge.
The Chinese have also been involved in the construction of the 453-km Lamu-Garissa Road and at least 300km of informal settlement roads in Nairobi.
The stalled dualing of the 84-km Kenol-Sagana-Marua highway, jointly financed by the Africa Development Bank and Kenya, is undertaken in two phases by Chinese firms Jiangxi Transportation Engineering Group and China Wu Yi Co., Ltd.
The road is part of the 800km- “Great North Road” from Mombasa, through Nairobi and on to Moyale.
The historic visit by President Ruto is thus expected to unlock the financing quagmire of the stalled projects amidst the harsh economic situation the country faces.
Other pertinent issues in the talks include the balance of trade, even as Kenya seeks to export more fresh produce, cooperation in digital economy, climate change and investments in green energy.
The author is a contributing editor and a master’s degree student in International Relations at the China Foreign Affairs University