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Ruto walks diplomatic tightrope during first visit to China owing to his foreign dealings

President William Ruto and his wife Rachel greet his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping and the latter's spouse Peng Liyuan at the Great Hall of The People in Beijing, China. [PCS]

When President William Ruto made his maiden visit to China last week, he had to tread carefully since he wanted to portray Nairobi as the regional powerhouse and entice Chinese companies to invest in Kenya’s ICT and energy sectors, despite his obvious camaraderie with the West. 

“Kenya is a great champion of renewable energy and that is why our grid is almost 93 per cent renewable and that is a deliberate decision made. I’m happy you have technology that can work with us for leverage on our renewable assets,” he told Chinese investors. 

Experts in Sino-African relations claim that the trip, during which President Ruto and his delegation attended the Third Belt and Road Initiative Forum, was overshadowed by the Kenyan president’s growing fling with the West. 

The Chinese were perhaps waiting for an opportunity to retaliate because Ruto’s early diplomacy appeared to “look West”, sidelining them. 

The president’s arrival in China on Sunday last week to a rather lukewarm reception upon landing at the Beijing Capital International Airport aboard an Emirates airline highlighted his dalliance with the West. 

This was anticipated, according to Cliff Mboya, an expert on Sino-African relations, who told The Standard that Ruto’s connection with China differs from that of former President Uhuru Kenyatta. 

“Ruto ran on an anti-China campaign, blaming Chinese loans for the current economic crisis. He has basically leaned West earning a lot of praise from American diplomats,” said Mboya. 

There had only been a red carpet laid out, and a guard of honour mounted by a Chinese military unit. 

Chinese Premier Li Qiang received Ruto’s Ethiopian counterpart Abiy Ahmed, while the Chinese military put on a big display, and a group of dancers performed for him. 

President Ruto was received by the country’s Transport Minister Li Xiaopeng. 

Mboya says it is a general lesson in diplomacy that you get what you give in line with the principle of reciprocity. 

“President Ruto must have been aware that he is unlikely to get the same amounts of loans and deals owing to the rising public debt and thus had to diversify and look for alternative sources of investment and development finance. You win some and lose some. It’s a delicate balancing act for him,” argued Mboya 

The largest infrastructure boom Kenya has seen since independence is mostly driven by Chinese funding and the huge engineering and construction companies in the nation. 

There is no doubt that China’s activities in Kenya have greatly contributed to the continent’s sustained growth over the past 20 years and provided hitherto untapped prospects for Kenyan business people to prosper. 

And perhaps, President Ruto, who was then the deputy president, did not realise or take this into account when he was running for the presidency last year. As a result, he made certain remarks that Beijing deemed insensitive while also trying to outdo his predecessor Uhuru Kenyatta

Ruto had been outspoken in his criticism of Chinese loans, raising questions about the conditions of the deals as well as the debt load of the nation. 

Economist James Shikwati, the Director of the Inter Region Economic Network, warns: “On geopolitics, there’s a high likelihood that the president isn’t heeding the advice of his advisers if he does, they are not from Kenya or Africa. This poses challenges for Kenya’s foreign policy.” 

“Kenya-China relations are poised to pick up,” Shikwati explains. “Given our country’s economic character as a retail economy. There’s significant pressure to reduce the cost of living and revive the MSME economy that heavily relies on Chinese goods.”

But a source who was at the forum told The Standard: “Kenya was indeed at the centre of the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative.” 

“Our projects took a prominent position in Beijing, highlighting Kenya’s strategic importance for China in the region.”

“Unfortunately, over the last 12 months, we’ve witnessed some fumbling on the part of our president,” notes the source. “The anti-China narrative and his glowing camaraderie with the West didn’t sit well with the Chinese.” 

“The reason Kenya lost its appeal in China is quite clear. We’ve been oscillating between courting the West and realising they can’t fully fund our critical infrastructure projects,” explains the source.

But despite a rising national debt that has already reached $70 billion, according to data from the National Treasury, Ruto sought $1 billion more in loans from China. 

Before Ruto’s trip to China, his deputy Rigathi Gachagua predicted that he would ask for loan restructuring and additional time from China “so we can pay slowly and add us a little money so we can finish road construction.” But none of that seems to have been agreed or even discussed.

The majority of the $8 billion in Chinese loans now held by Kenya were used by the Uhuru Kenyatta administration to construct the Mombasa-Nairobi Standard Gauge Railway and highways. 

Commentators argue that seeking more funding from China would be a shift in stance from Ruto’s West-leaning team, which has criticised the previous administration for burdening the country with Chinese debt. 

“China-Kenya relations are undoubtedly complex, tracing back to the post-Uhuru Kenyatta era. President Ruto inherited a situation where his government had taken a tough stance on China, particularly regarding infrastructure projects and debts,” said Sylvanus Wekesa a research associate.

Wekesa suggests that President Ruto’s approach to China should be pragmatic.

“He can build on the historical ties between Kenya and China to continue advancing our infrastructure development while also pivoting Kenya to the west as a key anchor state in a region marked by instability.

“It’s all about striking a balance between Kenya’s interests in East Africa and the opportunities offered by the global community,” adds Wekesa.

However, Mboya, in a tweet said: “It was not a joyous 10th anniversary of the BRI in Kenya as signature project, the Standard Gauge Railway, remains stuck in the wilderness with no end in sight.” 

By the time of publication, there was still a lack of information on whether China fulfilled Ruto’s requests, including providing him with a new loan, but it is clear that things didn’t turn out as expected.  

Taiwan Issue and One-China Policy

Ruto was asked to emphasise Kenya’s ongoing adherence to the One-China policy in his first in-person meeting with President Xi Jinping in Beijing. 

The policy issue came up in the talks even though the two leaders also covered trade, infrastructure development, and collaboration in the digital sector. 

“Kenya is firmly committed to the one-China policy, supports China’s rightful position on human rights and other issues, and hopes to learn from China’s successful experience in development,” read a dispatch released by the Chinese Foreign Affairs ministry. 

The brief quotes President Ruto as saying that during the 60 years since Kenya and China established diplomatic relations, both sides have consistently shown mutual respect and trust. 

Taiwan is a diplomatic conundrum for Beijing, and China categorises it as its top foreign policy priority. Recent engagements between Kenyan and Taiwanese figures within Nairobi and President Ruto’s interactions with leaders from Kosovo, a breakaway state in south-eastern Europe prompted Beijing to react. 

Kenya’s firm adherence to the One-China Policy is not new. However, recent developments raised questions about the potential influence of these interactions on Kenya’s foreign policy. President Ruto’s administration had been seen as open to exploring broader diplomatic relationships even with unrecognised states. 

Earlier interactions between former President of Kenya National Chamber of Commerce and Industry Richard Ngatia, and Chenhwa Lou, a Taiwan Representative based in Hargeisa, Somaliland, hinted at a willingness to expand economic and diplomatic cooperation. These discussions sparked interest from Beijing. 

During the March and April meetings, the then-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 position, skilled workforce, and abundant natural resources. 

President Ruto’s camaraderie with leaders from Kosovo, a breakaway state in southeastern Europe further drew attention to Kenya’s stance on non-traditionally recognised regions. In particular, this interaction with a state that is not universally recognized raised eyebrows in Beijing. 

For context, China currently claims Taiwan is a province of the People’s Republic of China, whereas the current Taiwanese leadership maintains that Taiwan is already an independent country and 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 endeavour. 

Wekesa advises, “When dealing with leaders from breakaway states like Kosovo, President Ruto must be strategic. However, he needs to avoid appearing as if he’s pandering to foreign powers, especially the West. It’s essential to scrutinize the benefits and costs of recognizing Kosovo.”

“Before recognising Kosovo,” adds Wekesa, “Kenya should thoroughly assess the pros and cons of such a decision. It’s not just about diplomatic gestures; it’s about what Kenya stands to gain or lose in the global arena.”

“President Ruto must remember that every foreign policy decision carries consequences,” warns Wekesa.

“He should not allow Kenya to become a mere pawn in international politics. Prudent consideration is essential before taking any diplomatic steps.”

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 last year 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. 

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. 

Quagmire over Kosovo ties 

Still in Beijing, an encounter with Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic on the sidelines raised the stakes in Ruto’s diplomatic game.

During this meeting, President Vucic expressed Belgrade’s deep doubts and displeasure with Kenya’s recent Kosovo-related actions. 

Kenya’s recognition of Kosovan passports in March this year and its openness to recognizing Kosovo as an independent state raised eyebrows in Serbia, a nation staunchly opposed to Kosovo’s sovereignty. 

Sources in Beijing indicate that President Vucic lobbied fervently against Kenya’s decisions and appealed to President Ruto not to recognize Kosovo. 

He also expressed optimism that Ruto would soon visit Serbia. 

Vucic stated, “I had a lengthy talk with President Ruto, and I believe we had a good understanding of one other’s positions on upholding international law. You should never talk in another person’s name, but as for us, I believe we did a wonderful job, and we anticipate that he will visit Belgrade soon.” 

Given the hostilities between Serbia and Kosovo and Kenya’s increasing position, the encounter was unquestionably crucial. 

During the UN General Assembly in September, President Ruto met with Vjosa Osmani, the president of Kosovo. 

Kosovo is a self-declared state, which makes the situation more complicated. 

President Ruto was pictured in a family photo taken at the State Banquet at the Great Hall of the People, standing behind Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping. 

Kenya’s Support for Ukraine 

During the recent United Nations General Assembly, held against the backdrop of the ongoing Russia-Ukraine conflict, President Ruto strongly declared Kenya’s support for Ukraine. 

He underlined Kenya’s unwavering commitment to a global order built upon established rules and principles. This declaration wasn’t mere rhetoric; Kenya’s voting behavior at the UN has seen Nairobi consistently support resolutions that did not favor Russia. 

To Russia, Ruto has a debt dating back to the first term of the UhuRuto administration during his indictment at the International Criminal Court (ICC). 

Russia and China sitting at the United Nations Security Council, had a role in vetoing any referrals. 

Kenya sent emissaries to Moscow and Beijing to ensure the two capitals did not support any motion to deny Kenya a hearing on the issue of the ICC in the Security Council and to make sure that the body rejected any prosecution and interference with the Kenyan political process.

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