Ruto’s US visit is not a detachment from China

Published Jun 15, 2024


By Cliff Mboya

Kenya’s President William Ruto’s recent state visit and lavish reception in the US has elicited a lot of debate across the foreign policy circles within the Continent and beyond.

To many observers, it symbolises a prodigal return to the West particularly the US and a detachment from China and the symbolic East. However, this is a misreading of Kenya’s foreign policy goals. Kenya’s foreign policy is opportunistic yet pragmatic enough with a focus on its immediate needs.

Ruto himself elucidated Kenya’s foreign policy position when CNN’s Richard Quest asked him whether he prefers investments by US or Chinese companies. He said, “People want to pull us to a conversation on whether we are facing East or we are facing West. We are neither facing West nor East; we are facing forward where opportunities are.”

Moreover, many observers failed to notice that while Ruto and members of his cabinet were in the US, his political party, United Democratic Alliance was in China for a 10-day engagement with the Communist Party of China led by the Party’s secretary general.

Since independence, Kenya’s foreign policy has been unwaveringly facing West.

Attempts by communist China to make ideological inroads were curtailed by former president Jomo Kenyatta’s administration with the help of the CIA and M16.

Anyone suspected to be associated with the communist block found himself or herself increasingly isolated from the 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 block 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 its Western relations that are still beneficial.

When the US banned China’s largest tech company 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 had 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 (R66bn) expressway that will essentially run parallel to China’s standard gauge railway (SGR) 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, 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 a 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; and lack of continuity beyond Nairobi may cause bottlenecks that may be counter-productive.

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 and Israel-Palestinian conflicts 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 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.

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.

Dr Cliff Mboya is post-doctoral fellow at the Centre for Africa-China Studies at the University of Johannesburg

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