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Rwanda will not be “bullied” into taking sides in the superpower rivalry between the United States and China, a senior Rwandan diplomat said in an exclusive interview recently, adding that Beijing has been “really helpful” to many African economies. James Kimonyo, Rwanda’s ambassador to China, said both Washington and Beijing were important partners for the African country, which has been rebuilding its economy in the three decades since the end of its genocide.

James Kimonyo, Rwanda's Ambassador to China
James Kimonyo, Rwanda’s Ambassador to China

“The United States is our friend. In the same way, China is our friend,” he said. “We can’t be bullied; we can’t be forced. We think China is a very good friend of ours and nobody can tell us otherwise.” Kimonyo, who was Rwanda’s envoy to the US from 2007 to 2013, said that if issues arose among major powers, there should be a “framework” to address them.

In the case of the US and China, he noted, the two countries had had a series of meetings and high-profile visits even when they disagreed on some issues. This included Chinese President Xi Jinping’s meeting with his American counterpart Joe Biden in San Francisco in November, leading to the restoration of military communication and exchanges between the two sides.

In a phone call recently, the pair also discussed a wide range of issues including American technology curbs and Chinese trade barriers. “For us, we are very categorical and very clear that you cannot come to us … and force us to choose our friends,” Kimonyo said. “That’s our sovereign issue and we decide on our own destiny.”

China-funded infrastructure across Africa force difficult decisions for its leaders. As for the more controversial issues dividing the major powers such as over Taiwan or Xinjiang, the seasoned diplomat said “these are purely internal matters of China, period”. Kimonyo also defended China’s investments in Africa – including those under its Belt and Road Initiative – amid global concerns over mounting debts for African countries.

China has been accused of engaging in “debt-trap” diplomacy in developing economies that have taken part in the massive infrastructure programme designed to connect Asia, Africa and Europe. But Kimonyo dismissed those arguments as “illogical”.

“When we meet with China, we discuss these projects based on our national priorities – unless you want to assume that we’re stupid, that we can’t think and we can’t set priorities for our countries,” he said.

“China has never ever – even before I came to China, I know for a fact – come to a country and said I want to build you a road, I want to build this hospital, I want to do this project,” he added. Belt and road projects in Rwanda range from infrastructure such as roads and bridges to resources like energy and water supply. Both sides have lauded the cooperation. As one example of China’s consistent efforts to help Africa, Kimonyo cited former Chinese leader Mao Zedong’s support for the region – even as the Chinese economy was struggling.

In the 1960s under Mao’s leadership, China set up factories and helped build a railway linking landlocked Tanzania and Zambia, which was China’s first major engineering project in Africa, he said. “If someone started doing that when he was still poor himself, then this person has a good heart. It’s not about now that China suddenly wakes up and they want to invade Africa and steal and put them in a debt trap,” he said.

“Honestly, I don’t want to use a language that isn’t diplomatic but it’s just ridiculous to say Africans cannot think.”

Kimonyo made the assessment on the sidelines of an embassy event to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda, a massacre that claimed the lives of more than 1 million Rwandans in a period of three months. He said Rwanda – including much of its infrastructure – was “destroyed” during the genocide, a period he described as “very terrible and difficult”.

Rwandan President Paul Kagame rebuilt the country through extensive economic reforms but Kimonyo said the country’s recovery was also buoyed by the support of the international community. China, in particular, had “stayed on the forefront in terms of supporting Rwanda in [its] socio-economic transformation agenda” and Beijing’s investments had placed China “at the centre of [Rwanda’s] transformation”.

“There’s a whole range of programmes that China has been investing money in … which in so many ways, China has been really helpful to many African countries,” he said. “That’s why our relations with China have been very, very positive and very productive.”

China is already Rwanda’s biggest source of foreign direct investment but Kimonyo said there were still many areas of cooperation – from infrastructure to education and healthcare – and he expected that investment to grow. He said there was also much to learn from China in terms of technology and innovation as Rwanda sought to transform itself into a tech hub and middle-income country.

At the commemorative event, Wu Peng, the Chinese foreign ministry’s director general of African affairs, pledged China’s support for Rwanda’s development and deeper ties between the two countries.

“We will continue to support Rwanda in following a development path compatible with its realities, further deepen bilateral relations and promote practical cooperation for greater benefits of our two peoples,” he said.

“I believe the Chinese government wants, through FOCAC, to make our own contribution to peace in Africa to avoid this tragic genocide from happening again,” he added, referring to the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation which is set to hold its next meeting in Beijing later this year.

“China always views and develops its relations with Africa from a strategic and long-term perspective. We will continue to stand firmly with our African brothers.”

Categories: ChinAfrica

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