Kenyan leader visits White House, rejecting US-China tussle

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NAIROBI, Kenya (AP) — U.S. President Donald Trump meets Thursday with Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta, who comes to the White House with a warning: Africa is not a battlefield for proxy disputes with countries such as China.

This is a rare visit by an African head of state to Trump’s White House and the leaders’ second meeting after one in 2018. They are widely expected to discuss the establishment of a free trade agreement between the U.S. and Kenya, though a smiling Kenyatta said Wednesday he could neither confirm nor deny it.

It would be the first time the U.S. has signed such an agreement with a country in sub-Saharan Africa. As East Africa’s economic hub, Kenya has strategic importance as the U.S. tries to counter the influence of China, which more than a decade ago surpassed the U.S. as Africa’s largest trading partner.

Kenyatta on Wednesday, in remarks at the Atlantic Council in Washington, warned against a return to the Cold War era where countries across Africa were forced to choose sides.

Global powers are “behaving like Africa is for the taking,” Kenyatta said Wednesday. “We don’t want to be forced to choose. … We must begin to look at Africa as the world’s biggest opportunity, and I believe that you can dare to look at it with a fresh eye.”

Kenyatta rejected concerns that a free trade agreement with the U.S. would undermine a new continental free trade agreement in Africa aimed at creating the world’s largest common market. Kenya was one of the first to sign the deal, he said.

According to Kenyatta’s office, Kenya has been working closely with the U.S. to craft a trade arrangement that guarantees continued market access for Kenya’s products in the U.S. after the African Growth and Opportunity Act ends in 2025. Under AGOA, Kenya enjoys duty-free access to the U.S. market, Kenya’s third largest export destination.

Meanwhile Kenya is struggling to finance its debt due in part to borrowing from the Chinese to finance large infrastructure projects such as a $3.8 billion standard gauge railway line. Part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative, the majority-Chinese financed railway is Kenya’s largest infrastructure project since independence from Britain in 1963. Critics say the 610-kilometer (380-mile) project is overpriced.

Progress is unclear on an agreement between the U.S. and Kenya to build a highway to link the capital, Nairobi, with the port city of Mombasa. The project is seen as Washington’s countermeasure to China’s growing influence.

In November, U.S. Ambassador Kyle McCarter rejected local media reports saying the Chinese were looking to be awarded the contract after the U.S. abandoned it, calling it fake news. He said the project was on track and would not saddle Kenya with unsustainable debt.

Kenyatta’s meeting with Trump is also expected to focus on security and countering extremism, just weeks after the al-Qaida-linked al-Shabab extremist group based in neighboring Somalia carried out the deadliest attack against the U.S. military in Africa since 2017 when four soldiers were killed in Niger.

Three Americans were killed last month, including a service member and two contractors, and several U.S. aircraft were destroyed at a military base on Kenya’s coast. It was the first al-Shabab attack against the U.S. military in Kenya.

That attack took place as the Trump administration considers reducing its military presence in Africa to focus on Russia and China.

Al-Shabab has launched numerous attacks inside Kenya and is the target of a growing number of U.S. airstrikes inside Somalia during the Trump administration, including 63 last year.

Climate change is another concern for Kenya and countries across Africa, which stands to suffer the most from global warming but is the least equipped to deal with it and contributes to it the least. Kenyatta has said Kenya is the only African nation to reach the goal of making renewable energy 75% of its energy mix.

“My friends, climate change is real,” Kenyatta said at the Atlantic Council. “We are very clear on that.” He said it must be fought collectively.

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Anna reported from Johannesburg.

Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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