Kenya’s geopolitical re-balancing? — Ruto embraces West as ties with China cool
Kenyan President William Ruto’s recent diplomatic overtures to the West are prompting analysts to ask whether the days of close Chinese engagement are coming to an end.
Since taking office in August, Ruto has embraced Kenya’s economic and diplomatic relationships with the United States, United Kingdom and other Western countries, causing onlookers to wonder whether the “Look East” policy of his predecessor, which saw Chinese-built infrastructure spring up across the East African country, is coming to an end. Ruto’s visit to Washington, DC, last week to attend President Biden’s US-Africa Leaders Summit, was a chance for the US to mend strategic relationships seriously damaged during Donald Trump’s tenure. The Kenyan president delivered a statement of his own on boosting trade and investment between Africa and the US.
Ruto’s clear overtures to Washington have stood in stark contrast with attitudes to China. While Ruto and his deputy Rigathi Gachagua have met high level US officials almost 20 times since taking office, the president has reportedly met China’s ambassador just once. Amid allegations by many Western analysts about Chinese predatory lending to African countries, and related concerns over Kenya’s mounting public debt, Ruto campaigned in part on a Beijing-sceptic platform. He has repeatedly stressed plans to release secretive government contracts signed with Beijing for infrastructure projects, end the infrastructure borrowing boom and deport Chinese workers doing jobs that Kenyans could do.
Today, Beijing accounts for two-thirds of Kenya’s $38bn external debt, notably that incurred during an infrastructure building spree by his predecessor Uhuru Kenyatta. In October, Nairobi defaulted on its repayments, incurring a fine which it paid.
Ruto’s overtures appear to be yielding results. Moderna will soon begin manufacturing vaccines in Kenya, according to plans, joining large American firms such as General Electric, Meta, Google and Microsoft in establishing a footprint in the East African powerhouse. After discussions with Mike Hammer, the US special envoy for the Horn of Africa, Kenya stepped up its peacekeeping role in war-torn Ethiopia and the Democratic Republic of Congo, even deploying troops in the latter. The US Embassy in Nairobi meanwhile stated proudly last month that America is now Kenya’s biggest export market, largely due to growth in the textile sector. But some experts feel Kenya’s rapprochement with the US says more about Beijing’s changing priorities and Kenya’s economic straits than American policy.