Why Taiwan is a diplomatic hot potato for China and will likely appear during Ruto's, Xi talks

Taiwanese soldiers salute during National Day Celebrations in fron of the Presidential Building in Taipei, Taiwan on October 10, 2021. [AP photo]

Kenyan President William Ruto embarked on his first visit to China since taking office, a notable departure from his initial alignment with Western nations.

He is attending the 10th-anniversary conference of the Belt and Road Initiative and will engage in crucial talks with his Chinese counterpart President Xi Jinping.

The forum will convene world leaders in Beijing for talks on cooperation and partnership. According to State House, Nairobi- this meeting will emphasize infrastructure development and enhanced connectivity across continents and peoples.

Key agenda items include infrastructure development, trade and investment, the digital economy, and the sensitive issue of Kenya's debt burden, notably the borrowing from China to fund infrastructure projects.

While Ruto's stance on the borrowing spree from China has evolved, his tenure has seen renewed cooperation between Kenya and China, particularly in infrastructure development, such as the Standard Gauge Railway.

Beijing says the comprehensive strategic cooperative partnership between the two countries has grown smoothly despite the Covid-19 pandemic which had halted physical diplomatic engagements between states.

Deputy President Rigathi Gachagua revealed last week that President Ruto will likely borrow Sh150 billion to complete stalled projects. He added that the Head of State will also seek a review of loan terms.

"In those negotiations, the president will ask the Chinese government to review credit service terms for the existing loans and also give us a top-up so that we can complete the stalled road projects,'' he said.

Gachagua speaking on Inooro FM said, "We want to be a good debtor who will not run away from credit service obligations...We have agreed that we will pay all our debts but at the same time we want to engage our creditors to be lenient, and patient and also continue to help us in times of need."

In July this year, President Ruto held talks with the Chinese top foreign policy official Wang Yi at State House, Nairobi.

During the meeting, the two sides committed to enhancing cooperation in the Belt and Road initiative, which Kenya has been a beneficiary through the Standard Gauge Railway.

The President said Nairobi aims to work with Beijing to upgrade roads in the country, Jomo Kenyatta International Airport, and the ports of Mombasa and Lamu.

During these talks, France lost a deal to expand the Mau Summit-Rironi Highway to China.

This historic visit comes when Beijing is keen to dislodge Kenya's allies again in bagging crucial delas, and Western capitals will be monitoring closely.

Former Foreign PS Boaz Mbaya in his book "Kenya's Foreign Policy and Diplomacy" wrote that President Kibaki's state visit to China in 2005 attracted the interest of envoys of Western countries in Nairobi who were keen to know the outcome of the visit.

Former US Ambassador Andrew Bellamy and his British counterpart Adam Wood at the time made a joint demarche to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs seeking to gather information about aspects of Kibaki's visit of interest to them.

First, they wanted to know why the Kenyan leader chose to visit China. Second, whether this interest signified a shift in the country's foreign policy towards the East.

Taiwan issue

However, the shadow of the Taiwan issue looms over the discussions.

Beijing has made it clear that the Taiwan issue remains a top foreign policy priority for China. Kenya maintains a One-China policy, aligning itself with Beijing's perspective that Taiwan is part of China, but two events early this year may have caught Beijing's attention.

In March and April, former Kenya National Chamber of Commerce and Industry President Richard Ngatia played host to Chenhwa Lou, a Taiwan Representative based in Somaliland to discuss the opportunities available in trade and investment.

During the meeting, the Chamber President highlighted the importance of strengthening ties between Kenya and Taiwan. Ngatia emphasised that Nairobi is an attractive destination for foreign investment, and Taiwanese investors can benefit greatly from the country's strategic location, skilled workforce, and abundant natural resources.

Yet, recent interactions between Kenyan figures and representatives from Taiwan, Kosovo, and Somaliland have raised questions about Kenya's stance on non-traditionally recognized regions.

For context, China currently claims it is a province of the People's Republic of China, whereas the current Taiwanese leadership maintains that Taiwan is already an independent country as the Republic of China and thus does not have to push for any sort of formal independence.

And just like Kosovo, and Somaliland- Taiwan is not a member of the United Nations (UN) or its sub-organisations, but it aspires to participate.

China opposes this and it argues, that only sovereign states can enjoy membership in the UN. Beijing has succeeded in this endeavor.

President Ruto's attempts to cut ties with Western Sahara, an African Union member state, Kenya's recognition of Kosovan passports, and appointment of an ambassador to Hargeisa, Somaliland continue to spark a flurry of reactions.

For starters, Somaliland, a self-declared autonomous region in northern Somalia, has long sought international recognition as a sovereign state. However, this quest has faced resistance from the international community, with no foreign power officially acknowledging Somaliland's sovereignty, although some maintain unofficial political relations with the region.

Kenya has adhered to a policy that views Somalia as a single entity with federal regions operating under autonomous administrations, a stance it continues to uphold. Nevertheless, an incident in June drew attention to Kenya's delicate diplomatic dance.

At that time, Somaliland's flag was inadvertently present during President Uhuru Kenyatta's annual diplomatic address in Nairobi, leading to a formal protest and walkout by Somalia's Ambassador to Kenya, Mohamud Ahmed Nur.

In response, Kenya's Ministry of Foreign Affairs reiterated its recognition of the sovereignty of a unified Federal Somalia Government and the integrity of the Federal Somali state.

There is a common thread between the Somaliland issue and the broader international dynamics, notably involving Taiwan. China maintains a strict "One-China" policy, which asserts that Taiwan is an inseparable part of China. This stance is rooted in historical and legal bases that China regards as unassailable. It views the People's Republic of China as the sole legitimate government of China, actively pursuing Taiwan's eventual reunification with the mainland.

This is the foundation of diplomatic relations China established with other countries including Kenya.

"The de facto basis for the one-China principle is unshakable. Taiwan has belonged to China since ancient times. The earliest references to this effect date back to the year 230," Beijing maintains.

It is against this background that the Ngatia-Chenhwa meeting in Nairobi might be revisited during President Ruto's talks with his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping.

The recent camaraderie between Ruto and the leaders of separatist regions in Europe, which is a delicate subject for Beijing, would probably prompt the Chinese leader to ask Kenya if it still maintains the One-China Policy.

Notably, Kenya does not have official relations with Taiwan and considers the island part of China, in line with Beijing's position.

It, however, hosts the Taiwan Trade Centre, Nairobi.

Founded in 1970, TAITRA describes itself as "Taiwan's foremost non-profit trade promoting organisation" that is "sponsored by the government and industry organisations" to assist enterprises in expanding their global reach.

In April 2016, Kenya deported two groups of Taiwanese to China after they were acquitted in a cybercrime case, a move that drew protestations from Taipei.

The Kenyan government said the people were in Kenya illegally and were being sent back to where they had come from.

Amina Mohamed, the foreign minister at the time told Reuters that Kenya does not have official relations with Taiwan.

"We believe in the 'One-China' Policy. We have diplomatic relations with China. We haven't seen the official protest, we are hearing it from the media," Amina said.