Is Ruto's war on China a pre-election negotiation tactic? – Capital FM Kenya

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Deputy President William Ruto and his political lieutenants have made China a campaign agenda as Kenyans move closer to the August 9, 2022 polls. He has repeatedly criticized Kenya’s borrowing from China, blaming it on the country’s high public debt. One of his key allies has petitioned Kenyan parliament to undertake investigations into all government contracts involving Chinese companies since 2014. The Deputy President has also promised to deport Chinese nationals while his confidants are currently mobilizing Kenyan motorists to boycott the use of the newly constructed and China funded Nairobi Expressway.
Many of the China claims fronted by the Kenya Kwanza political outfit, however, do not stand the mettle of scrutiny.  On debt, for example, Kenya’s debt to China accounts for less than 10% of total public debt or 19% of the total external debt. On the other hand, the World Bank and Eurobond holders account for nearly half of Kenya’s external debt at 28% and 20% respectively, based on data from the Treasury.
On Ruto’s intent to reverse operational policy decisions about the implementation of the Standard Gauge Railway, the facts stand against his rhetoric. The new arrangement has seen improved efficiency at the Mombasa Port where cargo can now be cleared in three days compared to earlier situation of 21 days. Extended cargo capacity has seen the Mombasa Port handle 34.5 million tons of cargo in 2021, compared to 27.3 million tons in 2016, according to government figures.
Regarding revenue, the government collected KSh. 728 billion during 2021/2022 financial year from the port operations; KSh. 218 billion more than during the 2019/2020 period. The increased haulage, and revenue, despite the Covid-19 pandemic is indicative that the government strategy is bearing fruits for the people of Kenya.
On the claim that Chinese nationals are taking jobs from Kenyans, the facts are pointing to the contrary. There are currently over 400 Chinese firms in Kenya providing over 40,000 jobs to locals. The collective localization levels in the Chinese companies stands above 90%, meaning that the foreign firms are creating jobs for locals, instead of taking away from them. 
For a man who fervently defended government’s economic partnership with China during the first tem of Jubilee government (2013-2017), Ruto’s disaffection with Beijing can only be understood by contextualizing the impending presidential elections.
As a vote hunting strategy, the economy has become an important messaging point by the Presidential candidates. For the Kenya Kwanza outfit, it appears convenient to regurgitate enduring false narratives about China’s role in Kenya’s economic difficulties. Singling China taps into the globally peddled debt-trap theory that politicians hope can get them ahead in the elections. The theory has however been discounted by many researchers around the world.
Secondly, it is no secret that Deputy President fell out with his boss, President Uhuru Kenyatta after the reelection in 2017. While together with President Kenyatta, Ruto approved of the development outcomes realized in partnership with China. He has for instance taken credit for many of the signature projects such as the SGR, roads, bridges, water and energy projects that China helped to deliver in Kenya.
However, those projects implemented by President Kenyatta after 2018 have been characterized by Ruto as avenues to pilfer public funds. It is illogical that China’s partnership with Kenya could only be beneficial when Ruto is involved. The only rational explanation is political and economic competition that Kenya Kwanza coalition is upping against President Kenyatta’s surviving Jubilee faction.

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The most credible reason why Ruto appears hard on China is to leverage strong rhetoric as a pre-election negotiation tactic. It is a fact that China remains one of the most responsive international development partners for many emerging economies around the world. Whoever gets elected in the August poll as the new Kenyan President will likely consider partnership with Beijing to deliver on some of their election pledges. This is indeed a reality that is appreciated by the leading presidential candidates.
Across Africa and around the world, we have seen political actors rise to the top on anti-China rhetoric. Such leaders have eventually turned to China upon assuming office, after realizing that Beijing has more to offer developing countries based pragmatic arrangements and mutually reinforcing productive outcomes.
Seen this way, the buildup of negativity towards China by Kenya Kwanza team is actually courting strategy, aimed at fostering Ruto’s negotiation capability, should Kenya Kwanza form the next government. In realpolitik terms, it is this driver that most explain the inner views of Ruto’s foreign policy architects.
The writer is a scholar of international relations with a focus on China-Africa relations. Twitter: @Cavinceworld
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