Ruto courts China with eye on new infrastructure deals

Ruto in China

President William Ruto addressing participants during the Third Belt And Road Forum in Beijing, China, on Wednesday, October 18.

Photo credit: Courtesy | PCS

President William Ruto and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping were last evening retracing the history of the cooperation between their two countries but left out, for now, the specific details of any new dealings going forward.

On the sidelines of the Third Belt and Road Forum, Dr Ruto and President Xi met with their delegations, the first time such a meeting has happened since he became President.

Sources told Nation final details of any new infrastructure deals would be announced later.

The Chinese government labelled the meeting as the beginning of a new ‘era of Zheng He,’ referring to the 14th century Chinese explorer said to have sailed to Malindi.

“Over the past decade, China and Kenya together built the Mombasa-Nairobi railway and the oil terminal at the port of Mombasa, among other projects,” said Hua Chunying, China’s spokesperson for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. “We will work with Kenya for an even more robust comprehensive strategic cooperative partnership.”

William Ruto

President William Ruto and First Lady Rachel Ruto are received at the Great Hall of the People during a State banquet hosted by President Xi Jinping for visiting Heads of State and government in Beijing, China, on October 17, 2023.

Photo credit: PCS

Earlier, President Ruto had said the Chinese had been vital in building crucial infrastructure for Kenya.

The new cooperation, he stressed, must focus on what will make the infrastructure useful.

“These projects have transformed connectivity within our country by making greater productivity and efficiency possible. They have also transformed Kenya's connectivity regionally, facilitating cross-border trade and regional integration,” he argued, saying, security has also improved in areas where those roads have been built.

“Sustainable transformation must proceed from a robust infrastructural foundation, and the BRI [Belt and Road Initiative] established it. Yet even as we appreciate the successful outcomes of the BRI investments, we must pay attention to another transformation which has emerged and rapidly established itself as the most powerful social, economic political and cultural force of our time: the ICT revolution and the digital economy.”

Dr Ruto’s appearance in Beijing may upended any perception that he was moving away from the Chinese; Kenya’s key partners in infrastructure rebuilding for the past 20 years. Yet he kept an important tradition: Since 2017 when the first Belt and Road Forum was announced, Kenyan Presidents have always been invited as guests.

President Ruto

President William Ruto during an Investors' Roundtable organised by Kenya Investment Authority and Kenya-China Chamber of Commerce and Industry, Beijing, China on October 17, 2023.

Photo credit: PSC

However, in the previous two visits, Kenya often came out with some deal being announced. In 2019, Kenya got some Sh40 billion to link the Standard Gauge Railway (SGR) to the old railway line. On this occasion, Kenya announced agreements with on power supply stabilisation and digital programmes.

But the talk was that Kenya could convince the Chinese to agree to extend the SGR beyond Kenya’s borders. State House made no mention of those although sources explained that as many as 15 important deals were yet to be finalised with Beijing even as Kenya already harbours the cost of repaying what it owes China.

Kenya had on Monday signed an deal with Huawei “that will accelerate Kenya's digital transformation,” allowing the Chinese tech giant to “advance our ICT infrastructure and drive digitisation” across key sectors like transportation, e-government, education, and health.

President Xi had spoken of digital focus, even though he promised to strengthen the BRI, now accommodating some 46 countries across the continent.