Kenya wants close ties with both U.S. and China, Kenyan president says

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Kenya sees no conflict in pursuing close ties with both the United States and China, Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta said on Wednesday, a day before he meets U.S. President Donald Trump to start talks on a potential free trade agreement.

FILE PHOTO: Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta addresses the 74th session of the United Nations General Assembly at U.N. headquarters in New York City, New York, U.S., September 25, 2019. REUTERS/Eduardo Munoz/File Photo

Kenyatta gave no details but said his country was keen to secure its economic future ahead of the expiry of the Africa Growth and Opportunity Act, which allows sub-Saharan African countries to export thousands of products to the United States without tariffs or quotas until 2025.

The East African nation, which needs to boost exports to create jobs at home for millions of young people and bolster hard currency earnings, has seen an increase in U.S. tourists and growing investments by firms like Alphabet Inc GOOGL.O.

Kenyatta said his country had no interest in being drawn into some proxy war between the world’s two largest economies after decades of Cold War tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union that also played out in Africa.

“We don’t want to be forced to choose. We want to work with everybody, and we think there is opportunity for everybody,” Kenyatta told an event hosted by the Atlantic Council.

Trump could send a formal notice to Congress as early as next week, paving the way for negotiations on a comprehensive, high-standard agreement with Kenya, said Scott Eisner, president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Africa Business Center.

House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Richard Neal, who hosted a bipartisan meeting with Kenyatta on Wednesday, signaled support for a new U.S.-Kenya trade pact but said it would require measures to enforce worker rights, environmental protections and good governance.

A U.S.-Kenya free trade agreement (FTA) would be the first such pact signed by Washington with a country in sub-Saharan Africa, and only the second FTA with any African country. An FTA was signed with Morocco in 2004.

Trump’s former national security adviser John Bolton in 2018 announced plans to expand U.S. economic ties with African nations to counter what he called aggressive efforts by China and Russia to expand their influence there.

“Kenya can have several best friends - the United States, China, Great Britain, the European Union and others. They need to do what is best for them to progress their economy, build their infrastructure and push the country forward,” said Johnnie Carson, a former U.S. ambassador to Kenya.

Stronger bilateral trade ties with the United States would not undermine the African Continental Free Trade Agreement signed by 54 of 55 African Union members, Kenyatta said.

Reporting by Andrea Shalal; Editing by Tom Brown and Cynthia Osterman