Kenyan President William Ruto arrived in the United States on Monday on a state visit — the first by an African leader since 2008 and the first Kenyan leader to do so in more than two decades.

Much has happened in the intervening years. Indeed, Ruto’s visit to the U.S. would have been unimaginable just over a decade ago. The U.S. backed the International Criminal Court’s decision in 2011 to charge Ruto and other Kenyan leaders with crimes against humanity for their alleged roles in violence after the disputed 2007 elections. Five years later, the ICC dropped the charges.

Ruto’s supporters may see this week’s visit as vindication for their leader. But it also highlights Kenya’s importance as a pivot state in the strategically important region of East Africa — an area of contestation between the U.S. and China.

What’s On the Agenda

Meron Elias of the International Crisis Group identifies a series of issues that Kenyan officials may discuss with their U.S. counterparts. They include the stalled Kenyan peacekeeping mission in Haiti, counterterrorism cooperation in Somalia (the U.S. operates from bases in Kenya), and diplomatic coordination over conflicts in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Sudan, and elsewhere.

Ruto will also look to discuss green energy investment and the renewal of the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), which provides vital duty-free access to sub-Saharan African countries. He and President Joe Biden, Reuters reports, will also discuss debt relief for Kenya, which has been in debt distress since the start of the COVID pandemic.

The Dragon in the Room

Biden will likely try to use Kenya’s debt woes as an opportunity to depict China as a predatory lender. But Beijing accounts for just over 15 percent of Kenya’s external debt, according to Kenya’s National Treasury. Roughly 50 percent of Kenya’s external debt is owed to multilateral lenders.

China is Kenya’s largest bilateral creditor. Kenya, like countless other developing countries, borrowed heavily from Beijing at the height of the Belt and Road Initiative to finance domestic infrastructure development. Many of these deals were poorly conceived and shrouded in secrecy with terms later revealed to be in Beijing’s favor.

The BRI’s flagship project in Kenya — the Nairobi-Mombasa section of the Standard Gauge Railway — has been subject to much controversy in Kenya relating to corruption, cost, and its economic viability.

Ruto himself was a vocal critic of Beijing in the lead-up to his election. His administration made public the contract with China, but he has since softened his stance toward China. In the end, Ruto needs to be on China’s good side. And he’s sought more support from Beijing, this time through public-private partnerships — a framework Beijing seems to prefer these days in Africa.

The Big Picture: Neglecting Africa

Washington has a lot of catching up to do in Africa. For the past three decades, it’s been customary for China’s foreign minister to begin each year with a visit to Africa. In contrast, U.S. leaders find it difficult to even make a phone call. Biden spoke with just one African head of state last year: President Ruto.

The Ruto visit could have been an opportunity to make up for lost time and show bipartisan support for a deeper partnership with the continent. But House Speaker Mike Johnson denied a request for Ruto to address a joint session of Congress.

The last African leader to address a joint session of Congress was Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf in 2006. In the eighteen years that have followed, 27 world leaders have addressed Congress. Prime Ministers Benjamin Netanyahu and Narendra Modi have each done it twice.

Years ago, I spoke with a former Kenyan government trade official who described the respect with which he felt Chinese officials treated him and his country’s delegation. Beijing even arranged a meeting with Jack Ma (before his disappearance and the crackdown on Ant Group).

China is by no means an altruistic actor. But it’s very present in Africa and, more importantly, doesn’t shy away from diplomatic and commercial engagement. The U.S., quite simply, has a lot of work to do.

Arif Rafiq is the editor of Globely News. Rafiq has contributed commentary and analysis on global issues for publications such as Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, the New Republic, the New York Times, and POLITICO Magazine.

He has appeared on numerous broadcast outlets, including Al Jazeera English, the BBC World Service, CNN International, and National Public Radio.

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