The Sino-Japanese infrastructural rivalry in Kenyan port cities: a (geo)political ecology of competing regimes of production of spaces and mobilities


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The key research aim in this project is:

  • To compare specific infrastructure projects, one Chinese-led and one Japanese-led, in two Kenyan port cities to analyse the effects of the projects on the cities and, in return, how these singular urban configurations affect the projects.

The details

Since the announcement of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) by China in 2013, Kenya has played a central role in the integration of East Africa in China’s unprecedented connectivity project. The centrality of infrastructure megaprojects in this world-scale initiative manifests a recent transformation by state and non-governmental actors regarding their conception of development. The objective is now to “get the territory right”, by producing functioning transnational territories that can be “plugged” into the global capitalist value chains of production and exchange.

In that sense, the BRI is the most consistent manifestation of what analysts call the “infrastructure turn”. China’s ultimate aim is to produce a Sino-centric organisation of world economy through the establishment of a large network of infrastructures, such as ports and railways, that can constitute knots connecting host countries’ hinterlands to the ocean and thus facilitate the exportation of resources to China through sealines.

The initiative has raised concerns among rival states who see China’s rapid economic and strategic rise in the Indo-Pacific as a threat, but also among host countries that are going through serious debt issues that nourish the “debt trap” rhetoric.

There have been multiple responses to the BRI, but the most salient one is the Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP), spearheaded by Japan, which has proved to be much more reactive to China than the United States regarding matters of infrastructure development.

The FOIP strategy is also designed to improve infrastructure connectivity between Asia and Africa, and thus hopes to provide developing countries with an alternative that can counter the BRI’s expansion. The opposition between these two projects makes it pertinent to question whether or not the global system is heading towards a “new cold war”.

This research project will conduct a comparative study of specific infrastructure projects in two Kenyan port cities, Lamu and Mombasa, respectively led by Chinese and Japanese actors through a close analysis of the effects of the projects on the two cities and how in return these singular urban configurations affect the projects.

The graduate researcher on this project is: Louis Cyuzuzo

Supervision team

First published on 2 August 2022.

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