PRAGMATIC

MBOYA: Why Ruto’s US visit not a detachment from China

There’s enough room for both the US and China; we should not be coaxed into choosing one over the other.

In Summary
  • Kenya lacks a clear and consistent foreign policy; it is vulnerable to an existing regime and mostly guided by the ruling party’s manifesto. 
  •  It therefore unsurprising that Kenya turned East when economic fortunes of China and other Asian countries rose and the West paid little attention.
President William Ruto with his US counterpart Joe Biden during a meeting at the White House in Washington DC on May 23, 2024.
FOREIGN RELATIONS: President William Ruto with his US counterpart Joe Biden during a meeting at the White House in Washington DC on May 23, 2024.
Image: PCS

None other than the President himself elucidated Kenya’s foreign policy position when CNN’s Richard Quest asked him whether he prefers investments by US companies or Chinese companies. Ruto answered, “People want to pull us into a conversation on whether we are facing East or we are facing West.” Moreover, many observers failed to notice that while President Ruto and members of his Cabinet were in the US, his political party, United Democratic Alliance (UDA), was in China for a 10-day engagement with the Communist Party of China led by the Party Secretary-General Cleophas Malala.

Since independence, Kenya’s foreign policy has been unwaveringly facing West, making it a darling of the West. Attempts by communist China to make ideological inroads in the country were curtailed by President Jomo Kenyatta’s administration with the help of the CIA and M16. Anyone suspected to be associated with the communist bloc found himself or herself increasingly isolated from government, a fate that befell Kenyatta’s first Vice-President Jaramogi Odinga Oginga. Moreover, the fall of the communist wing at the end of the cold war meant they had little to offer relative to the capitalist victors. I bet that had the communist bloc won, Kenya’s foreign policy would probably have faced East.

It is therefore unsurprising that Kenya turned East when the economic fortunes of China and other Asian countries rose and the West paid little attention to the country and the continent. China offered more incentives and it was an opportunity for Kenya to draw from its massive investment opportunities as it sustains western relations that are still beneficial. When the US banned China’s Huawei, one of China’s largest tech companies, and urged its allies to follow suit, Kenya rejected the proposition due to Huawei’s massive investments in the country and its prominent role in driving the country’s digital economy, and a lack of a viable alternative by the US.

One may ask what would have happened if the US offered something competitive or a better alternative? Interestingly, one of the key outcomes of the US visit includes a deal to construct a $3.6 billion (Sh46.8) expressway that will essentially run parallel to China’s standard gauge railway between Mombasa and Nairobi. Furthermore, Ruto’s trip came barely days after Kenya secured a commitment from China to fund the extension of the SGR from Naivasha to the Uganda border. Soon after the US trip, President Ruto was in Seoul for the Korea-Africa Summit. Conceptually, we can speculate that had South Korea proposed another highway to rival both the US highway and China’s railway, it would suffice.

Therefore, what would one expect from Kenya in the emerging multi-polar world today and what are the consequences of such a foreign policy? While Kenya’s pragmatism has arguably served it well to date, the intensifying rivalry between China and the US poses great danger to Kenya’s interests and priorities. For instance, one of the competing projects, America’s highway or China’s railway may affect the other negatively due to possible overcapacity. Moreover, the lack of continuity beyond Nairobi may cause bottlenecks that may be counterproductive.

Externally, Kenya’s credibility as a reliable ally may come into question particularly in situations where there is no middle ground. Its double speak on critical International matters like the Russia-Ukraine conflict and the Israel-Palestinian conflict as well as the planned intervention in Haiti betrays the AU’s collective agenda and spirit of neutrality and non-interference.

Kenya lacks a clear and consistent foreign policy despite an existing foreign policy document. It is vulnerable to an existing regime and mostly guided by the ruling party’s manifesto and the head of state’s preferences. As several other international actors emerge, it would be beneficial to clarify Kenya’s paramount position on specific foreign policy matters to align with foreign policy objectives without contradictions. The Swahili saying, “mtaka vyote, hukosa vyote”, should guide this endeavour.

Nonetheless, Kenya’s foreign policy should not be viewed from the binary view of US-China rivalry where a gain for the US is seen as a loss for China. This zero-sum analysis denies us the agency and policy space to articulate our needs and priorities globally. There is enough room for both the US and China as well as others in Kenya and other African countries and we should not be coaxed into choosing one power over the other.

Africa-China analyst and postdoctoral researcher at the Centre for Africa-China Studies, University of Johannesburg 

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