Biden looks to counter China’s influence as he rolls out red carpet for Kenya

When Kenyan President William Ruto touched down in Beijing seven months ago, he was welcomed on the tarmac with a red carpet and cordons of Chinese troops standing at attention. Among the goals of his three-day state visit in October: securing another $1 billion in loans from China to help complete infrastructure projects.

On Wednesday, when he arrived at Joint Base Andrews to begin another state visit – this time to Washington – he again found a red carpet and troops. This time, however, a special emissary was sent to greet his plane: first lady Dr. Jill Biden.

President Joe Biden is leaning on the highest trappings of American diplomacy this week to boost ties with the East African nation, including designating Kenya a major non-NATO ally – the first in sub-Saharan Africa – and hosting a sunset state dinner on the White House South Lawn.

Biden offered effusive praise for his Kenyan counterpart, including for Kenya’s leadership on “a historic African green industrialization initiative” as he welcomed Ruto to the White House for the visit.

“Together, the United States and Kenya are working to deliver on the challenges that matter most to our people’s’ lives – health security, economic security, cybersecurity, and climate security,” he said. “Mr. President, your bold leadership on this front has been important and particularly impactful.”

Looming over the pomp and circumstance is China’s expanding role in Africa, which has become a central testing ground for the world’s two largest economies as they jockey for economic and geopolitical influence.

Senior administration officials acknowledge a central factor in scheduling a state visit with Kenya was the desire to counter China’s influence and financial leverage on the African continent, which has outpaced the United States in direct investment.

“For many, many years, it was really the Chinese who showed up in Africa and in Kenya,” US Ambassador to Kenya Meg Whitman told CNN in an interview. With the first state visit for an African leader in nearly two decades, “there’s a specific message to Kenya and to the continent, which is: America wants to be your partner.”

For decades, China has been making high-interest loans to low-income African nations to help them fund development for domestic projects, including some flagship infrastructure projects within China’s Belt and Road Initiative. Among those: A high-speed rail route from Nairobi to Mombasa that the Kenyan government funded with billions in loans from Chinese state banks.

A decade after the construction of that railway, Kenya and the US plan to announce that an American company will be building a roadway along that same corridor.

“That’s a great opportunity for America to start bidding on these big government contracts that make a difference to the infrastructure” in Kenya, Whitman told CNN.

From 2000 to 2022, Beijing lent $170 billion to African nations – including $6.7 billion to Kenya – to fund these initiatives, according to Boston University’s Chinese Loans to Africa database. Those loans saddled Africa with costly debt that countries have been increasingly unable to service, leading many nations to seek relief from their sovereign lenders. Kenya’s debt is projected to reach a level of 74% of its economic output, with the country paying an increasing share of government revenue on rising interest costs.

“Too many nations are forced to make a choice between development and debt, between investing in their people and paying back their creditors,” Biden said during a joint press conference with Ruto.

Kenya has been forced to choose between servicing its debt and advancing its development, one reason Kenya’s Ruto has continued to seek new funds from Beijing.

“These countries, I think, have to stay friends with as many people as they can,” Whitman told CNN of Ruto’s continued financial relationship with Beijing. “The needs are great … we have to come with a better offer.”

During the state visit, the US and Kenya are set to announce the “Nairobi-Washington Vision,” calling on creditor countries – and likely China in particular – to provide grants, budget support and debt suspension to help alleviate the burden.

Ruto, meanwhile, has called on African leaders to lean more heavily on Western nations and lower-interest loans from the World Bank to fund their development.

“There’s some real China fatigue in Africa,” said a former senior administration official. “The administration sees an opening there.”

And the US has already begun stepping into that opening. At the Group of 20 summit last year, the US and European Union announced they would back the buildout of a rail corridor connecting Angola, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Zambia that would facilitate the transit of the region’s critical minerals back to the West.

In his meetings with Biden, Ruto has sought to emphasize Kenya – and the broader African continent – as an area worthy of investment. In a gathering of CEOs on Wednesday at the White House, he told his American counterpart that old perceptions of the continent were changing.

Kenya's President William Ruto and US President Joe Biden take part in an event with CEOs and business leaders in the East Room of the White House in Washington, DC on May 22. - Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images
Kenya's President William Ruto and US President Joe Biden take part in an event with CEOs and business leaders in the East Room of the White House in Washington, DC on May 22. - Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

“You’re all past thinking about Africa as a place of war and destruction instead of opportunity, and we’re making that real,” Ruto told the president during the meeting, according to a senior US administration official who paraphrased the leader’s remark.

Still, Ruto’s visit to Washington comes at a moment of political instability in many African countries. Military coups over the last year have toppled governments and underscored a fragile rule of law, while traditional American allies on the continent have demonstrated new willingness to break from the United States. One of the goals of Thursday’s state visit is to demonstrate the ability of democracies – like Kenya’s – to deliver for their people.

Biden, who hosted African leaders at the White House for a summit earlier in his term, has been consumed since then by conflicts in the Middle East and Ukraine. Since the December 2022 gathering, during which he declared he was “all in” on Africa, he’s hosted only one African leader for talks at the White House: Angolan President João Manuel Gonçalves Lourenço.

“It’s no secret that the world has had a lot going on the last year and a half,” a senior administration official said this week, pointing to a stream of Cabinet secretaries and other senior administration officials who have visited Africa as a sign of the Biden team’s commitment.

Yet the spate of foreign conflicts has prevented Biden himself from paying a visit, which he vowed to do within a year of the summit. He still intends to travel to Africa as president, his national security adviser Jake Sullivan told reporters on Wednesday, though he couldn’t say when.

Biden said as he welcomed Ruto to the White House on Wednesday he planned to visit Africa next year – after, he hopes, securing reelection.

“I plan on going in February,” Biden told reporters. It wasn’t clear whether Biden was joking; he asked afterward how questions about his travel plans were “relevant.”

Relevant or not, a presidential trip to Africa would come only after Chinese President Xi Jinping visited the continent last year for talks with leaders of the BRICS emerging economies.

Advisers say Biden remains intent on focusing attention on Africa, particularly amid jockeying for strategic influence from Russia and China. A comparison with former President Donald Trump – who privately referred to some African countries as “shitholes” and never himself visited Africa when in office – is also not lost on Biden’s aides.

Thursday’s state visit to Washington will be the first for an African leader since 2008.

Audience members attend the arrival ceremony for Kenyan President William Ruto on the South Lawn of the White House on May 23, 2024 in Washington, DC. - Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Audience members attend the arrival ceremony for Kenyan President William Ruto on the South Lawn of the White House on May 23, 2024 in Washington, DC. - Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

“We believe that what today will showcase is not questions about the US commitment but answers that the US is actually delivering for Africa, for the African people – in this case, for the country of Kenya, but also with Kenya for the broader continent,” Sullivan said Wednesday.

In choosing Kenya for Thursday’s state visit, Biden and his team are signaling they view Ruto and his country as among the most critical US allies in a region where allegiances toward Washington have shifted.

Kenya has been a key partner for the US in combatting al-Shabab militants in neighboring Somalia and earlier this year joined a US-led international coalition meant to beat back attacks on Red Sea shipping lanes by Houthi rebels in Yemen.

“Around the world, Kenya and America are also standing united against the terror of ISIS and Al-Shabaab, that they continue to perpetrate in East Africa, the aggression that Russia is inflicting on Ukraine, the violence that has toppled too many democracies across both our regions,” Biden said Thursday as he welcomed Ruto to the White House.

Kenya is also preparing to deploy 1,000 paramilitary police officers to Haiti in a bid to quell gang violence, a mission largely funded by the United States that is expected to last at least one year, according to Whitman.

Biden on Thursday defended his administration’s decision not to deploy US troops to Haiti, telling reporters that doing so could raise “all kinds of questions that can be easily misrepresented by what we’re trying to do, and be able to be used by those who disagree with us and against the interests of Haiti and the United States.”

Biden said the US was instead focused on finding “a partner or partners who would lead that effort that we would participate in, not with American forces, but with supplies and making sure they have what they needed.”

This week, a delegation of Kenyan “command staff” arrived in Haiti, according to a law enforcement source in the country, ahead of the Kenyan-led multinational security support force. The delegation was expected to assess this week whether equipment and facilities for the foreign police forces are ready – an assessment that will be decisive in determining a timeline for the deployment, a source with knowledge of the preparations told CNN.

Despite strong support from the US and other regional powers, however, the mission has been mired in uncertainty and legal challenges for months. It was further delayed following the resignation of former Haitian Prime Minister Ariel Henry in March, until the creation of a transitional governing council.

“This is not something that is a completely straight line. It is a dynamic operating environment, to say the least, in Haiti, and this is going to require an adaptive, flexible approach but one guided by certain core functions and operations,” Sullivan told reporters at the White House on Wednesday.

This story has been updated with additional developments on Thursday.

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