China’s Wang Yi makes detour to praise Kenya after reports that Beijing would support Djibouti

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Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi has made an unexpected stopover in Kenya as the East African country seeks support for its attempt to become a non-permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, in preference to Djibouti.

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Kenya was not on the original itinerary for Wang’s Africa [1] tour, which was scheduled to include Egypt, Djibouti, Eritrea, Burundi and Zimbabwe, as he continued a tradition of Chinese foreign ministers visiting Africa at the start of the year.

But on Friday, Wang flew from Djibouti City to the Kenyan coastal town of Mombasa and held talks with Kenyan Foreign Minister Monica Juma. He also visited the Standard Gauge Railway linking Mombasa with the capital Nairobi, which was funded and built under the Belt and Road Initiative [2] – Beijing’s multibillion-dollar plan to link China with Europe and Africa through investment in infrastructure.

The visit to Kenya followed reports that Beijing would support Djibouti’s push for the non-permanent seat available at the Security Council, a move that caused disquiet in Nairobi.

Three African countries at a time can take non-permanent seats on the Security Council, each requiring the votes of a two-thirds majority in the UN General Assembly. Niger and Tunisia were elected last June to represent the continent in 2020-21, replacing Ivory Coast and Equatorial Guinea. Kenya and Djibouti are vying to replace South Africa next January.

Kenya won the support of the African Union last August, beating Djibouti by 37 votes to 13. Djibouti conceded defeat but later said the process was flawed and began a campaign to challenge Kenya when UN General Assembly member countries hold the vote, in New York in June.

In Mombasa, Wang told Juma: “China supports Kenya to play a more important role in Africa’s regional affairs, supports Africans to solve African problems in an African way, and supports the African continent to realise the vision of silencing the guns as soon as possible.”

Juma thanked China for its long-term help and support for Kenya’s economic and social development, and for its constructive role in promoting peaceful development in Africa.

Both Kenya and Djibouti are major allies of China, home to large-scale Chinese-funded belt and road projects – putting Beijing in an awkward position as to which it should support for the UN seat. Sources said Wang had flown to Kenya to clarify the issue and avoid siding with one ally against another.

Before travelling to Mombasa, Wang held talks last Thursday with Djibouti President Ismail Omar Guelleh and Minister for Foreign Affairs Mahmoud Ali Youssouf. Wang told them that Djibouti was “a reliable and long-term partner”, and after the meeting Guelleh’s office posted tweets and released a statement hinting that China would support its bid for the UN seat.

Last month, Chinese President Xi Jinping’s special envoy State Councillor Wang Yong had hinted that Beijing was ready to support Kenya’s bid. “We firmly support the reforms of the UN Security Council and believe that Kenya will help to increase the voice of African countries,” he said.

But Wang Yong’s statement was later deleted from the Kenyan presidential office’s website. The Chinese embassy in Nairobi said the UN seat had not been part of December’s discussions, and sources indicated that Chinese officials felt the envoy’s words had been misinterpreted.

On Monday, Kenya’s Macharia Kamau, principal secretary to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said reports of Djibouti claiming to have secured China’s backing should be ignored, but conceded that “only the Chinese can determine” which country it would back.

Stephen Chan, a professor at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies, said Kenya had been included at the last moment to assure it that the Chinese valued it alongside Djibouti and Eritrea, its near neighbours on Africa’s east coast. “China is probably not trying to play one country off against another,” Chan said.

The Standard Gauge Railway in Kenya [5] has so far cost US$4.7 billion, funded by Exim Bank of China, while Djibouti is home to multibillion-dollar Chinese infrastructure investments including ports, railways and China’s first overseas military base. Located at the Horn of Africa, it is a hub for foreign militaries, also including those of the United States, France, Italy and Japan.

XAYEYSIIN

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