President's tough balancing act as Kenya is courted by East and West

President William Ruto and his US counterpart Joe Biden hold a joint presser at the White House, Washington, on May 23, 2024. [PCS, Standard]

Three powers that dominate the world in terms of military might, technological prowess, and geopolitical influence are the United States, Russia, and China.

Of the three, China is the most dominant. It rocks the world order through calculated geopolitical moves that astound its main power rival, the United States.

In reaction, the US tries to play catch up by warning other countries like Kenya about China and ends up sounding shrill rather than sober. The US, good at making promises and having propaganda advantages, suffers credibility deficits due to failure to deliver; China is the reverse of that.  

A number of events took place at roughly the same time in the United States and China, with Kenya as the focal point, that show various approaches to world power play. Kenya’s challenge is to protect its interests by balancing the competing forces without being swallowed by one side or the other.

While President William Ruto flew to the United States, for instance, a team of Ruto’s UDA officials was in China discussing effective party management. In addition, China held a symposium in Nairobi to stress its universal doctrine of there being only one China and that Taiwan is just a province, and not an independent entity. Kenya fully agrees and demands, what Musalia Mudavadi terms, respect for sovereignty of nations.

In the Nairobi discussions, China’s ambassador to Kenya, Zhou Pingjian, stressed the “shared future” between China and Africa based on “shared historical experiences … and shared strategic interests.” He talked of Taiwan as a province of China, being “at the core of interests of China”.

He was at pains to point at contradictions in the United States where a top State Department official, Mark Lambert, appears to encourage Taiwanese cession even though US President Joe Biden is on record supporting the One China policy and opposing “Taiwan independence”. Zhou, miffed that there was talk of inaugurating a ‘president-elect’ in Taiwan, asserted, “there is no such thing as ‘president of Taiwan,’” and commended Kenya for upholding the ‘one-China principle’.

He said that “challenging the one-China principle is challenging international order and … infringing on China’s sovereignty.” The ‘bottom line’ for China, he warned, was that Taiwan will never be independent and those, “challenging China’s sovereignty will get burned for playing with fire.”

Zhou’s warning of possible ‘fire’ over Taiwan made sense to those who had seen the habit in the West of provoking conflicts and humiliating other countries. Among them was Ambassador Erastus Mwencha, former Deputy Chairman of the AU Commission and a strong supporter of the UN position on the One-China policy. He has no time for those actively pushing the Taiwan independence agenda. And there was Raphael Tuju, Kenya’s former minister of Foreign Affairs in Mwai Kibaki’s government.

As minister, Tuju had actually had it rough with the West that appeared bent on ‘regime change’ in Kenya and kept harassing the country. Building on his experience in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Mr Tuju warned of the dangers of trying to humiliate a great power or a people being misled to provoke confrontations on behalf of others.

People in Taiwan, he argued, are being misled and should learn from Ukraine which bought arms and was “promised military cover” only to end up “getting slaughtered” while the sponsors are far away. Those in Taiwan, he asserted, were Chinese who had suffered two externally generated delusions. The first was that they could conquer mainland China and second that they can be independent of China.

Those delusions were due to ‘a prevailing Deceit over Taiwan’ propelled by ‘deceitful narratives’. “What should be of concern to all of us,” Tuju said, “are the possible consequences of the continuation humiliation of a giant like China. There is a potential disruption of world stability if we were to witness a war over Taiwan similar to the war now in Ukraine.”