Kenya’s relations with China will be a priority for the country’s new president’s foreign policy because of China’s outsize role in the Kenyan economy, observers said. The assessment comes after William Ruto, a vocal critic of China’s growing influence in Kenya, was declared president-elect in a tight and disputed race . Ruto, 55, deputy president since 2013, gained 7.17 million votes, or 50.49 per cent of the total, while veteran opposition politician Raila Odinga had 6.94 million votes, or 48.85 per cent, Kenya’s Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission announced on Monday. But the Odinga campaign team rejected the results, alleging vote-rigging. Further, the electoral commission’s deputy chairwoman said four of its seven members rejected the presidential election results, saying the results were arrived at in an opaque manner. Throughout the campaign China, Kenya’s second-largest lender after the World Bank, was a major issue, with some politicians accusing the government of taking excessive loans to finance projects. Kenya’s debt to China rose from US$2.1 billion in 2015 to about US$6.4 billion in December 2021, accounting for about two-thirds of all bilateral debt. During the campaign, Ruto styled himself as a champion of the poor and advocated a “bottom-up” economics model, promising to establish a US$420 million annual fund to give affordable credit to 10 million micro and small enterprises. He also promised to make public all contracts for major projects that Kenya signed with China. One of the projects is the US$4.7 billion Standard Gauge Railway which was funded by China Exim Bank and runs from the port city of Mombasa to the capital city Nairobi with an extension to Naivasha, a town in Central Rift Valley. China has also funded and built the 27.1km (16.8 miles) Nairobi Expressway , which was constructed by China Road and Bridge Corporation for US$688 million under the public private partnership model. Ruto, who sold chickens before entering politics, also threatened to deport foreign nationals, including Chinese working illegally in Kenya and operating small retail businesses that could be done by locals. Running for president for a fifth time, Odinga, 77, promised to renegotiate foreign debt, including that owed to China, if he won. As prime minister from 2008 to 2013, Odinga negotiated deals with China such as the Kenyan Standard Gauge Railway. Michael Chege, a political economy professor at the University of Nairobi, said Ruto’s “outrageous statements” against China and resident Chinese were not unusual for political leaders seeking election. Chege said that in a presidential campaign more than a decade ago in Zambia, the late Michael Sata warned against giving away Zambia’s sovereignty to China. But when elected president five years later, he changed his tune and welcomed Beijing’s continued funding for infrastructure projects. “When Mr Ruto faces the actual project agreements of Kenya with the PRC and the consequences of expelling the Chinese, he will pause and think again,” Chege said, referring to the People’s Republic of China. How former Kenyan president Mwai Kibaki looked east to China Mark Bohlund, a senior credit research analyst at REDD Intelligence, said Kenya remained a key African partner for China, but relations had frayed between the two countries due to criticism over the Standard Gauge Railway project and the performance of the rail system. “Ruto is likely to seek to repair these relations and secure Chinese financing for key projects, such as the extension of the SGR into Uganda and also to develop Kenya’s oil resources in the Turkana region,” Bohlund said. “It is far from certain that Ruto will make good on his promise to publish the contracts.” Bohlund said questions of Kenya’s debt sustainability were likely to remain important in Ruto’s first term. He said the International Monetary Fund (IMF) was likely to require some more progress on reducing the budget deficit to disburse more funds, which was likely to clash with Ruto’s political priorities. “While repayments on Chinese debt have dominated Kenya’s external debt servicing in 2022 and are likely to remain so in 2023, the more significant threat to debt sustainability is the rollover of the US$2 billion 2024 Eurobond and syndicated loans maturing in 2025,” Bohlund said. “Both the IMF and China are likely to seek to influence Kenya to take a more proactive approach to reduce its borrowing requirements in order to reduce the risks associated with the 2024-25 spike in external debt maturities.” Report casts doubt on Chinese debt-trap threat to Kenya’s Mombasa port XN Iraki, a professor at the University of Nairobi’s faculty of business and management sciences, said politics and reality were two different things. “What politicians said during the campaign and what they will do is different,” Iraki said. He said he doubted if relations with China would change dramatically. “Not when China has become this influential. The level of engagement may change. Maybe more open, more like the West,” Iraki said. He said Chinese debt would inevitably shape the relationship. “The new regime will inherit the old debts. They will either have to pay it or renegotiate,” Iraki said.