The announcement followed a White House meeting between President Donald Trump and Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta. When asked about the prospects for such a deal before the meeting, Trump said it “probably” would happen.
“We're going to start looking at that,” added Kenyatta. U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer said Kenya is a leader on the African continent and an important strategic partner of the U.S. "There is enormous potential for us to deepen our economic and commercial ties,” he said. Lighthizer said a “comprehensive, high-standard agreement” with Kenya can be a model for trade agreements between the U.S. and other African countries.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce applauded the announcement. “A deepening U.S.-Kenya commercial relationship bodes well for the U.S. and the entire African continent,” said Myron Brilliant, executive vice president and head of international affairs at the chamber.
As East Africa's economic hub, Kenya has strategic importance for the U.S. as it attempts to counter China's growing influence on the African continent. More than a decade ago, China surpassed the U.S. as Africa’s largest trading partner. The U.S. and Kenya currently trade about $1 billion in goods, according to the chamber.
Trump recently signed a trade agreement with China, and a separate deal with Canada and Mexico. The U.S. has a free-trade agreement with Morocco, signed in 2004. Kenyatta, in remarks Wednesday at the Atlantic Council in Washington, warned against a return to the Cold War era when countries across Africa were forced to choose sides.
Global powers are "behaving like Africa is for the taking," Kenyatta said. “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 deal 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 expires in 2025. It means duty-free access for Kenya 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 was also expected to focus on security and countering extremism. Just weeks ago, 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 carried out 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.
Anna reported from Johannesburg and Odula reported from Nairobi, Kenya.