Botswana - China relations getting progressively worse

25 Jun 2017

In emailed response to Sunday Standard questions, the Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation, Gaeimelwe Goitsemang, describes relations between Botswana and China as “excellent.” The reality though is that that superlative belongs in a different time period and administration because there is ample evidence that relations between the countries are getting progressively worse and could reach a tipping point in just two months.

Participating in a television programme in 2014, former president, Festus Mogae lamented that the Botswana he bequeathed to his successor, Ian Khama, is less welcoming.

“We were a small country that ran an open economy and open society but our present government has expelled over 2000 foreign professionals over the last six years,” Mogae said during an African Leadership Panel hosted by CNBC in Dar es Salam, Tanzania.

The Chinese are among those that the government has kicked out. A Private Sector Development Programme (PSDP) report that analyses Botswana’s tourism value chain reveals that not only are the Chinese being kicked out of the country, they are also being denied visas to enter the country as tourists. At least within the context of what Goitsemang says (“The criteria for allowing foreign nationals to visit Botswana are not necessarily based on the benefits to be derived”) this makes perfect sense. PSDP consultants interviewed tourist operators in both Gaborone and Kasane and write in the report: “Over half the Kasane sample, and a third of the Gaborone sample, indicated that they were difficulties with tourist visas, including that they were hard and time consuming to obtain, expensive, that they could not be obtained at the point of entry, and that sometimes they were denied to people who had booked trips. Specifically, it was noted that Indian and Chinese visitors had been denied visas.” The report doesn’t state reasons for which the visas are denied.

The government has been doing a lot of (mostly) mega-construction business with Chinese companies but there have been instances where the latter were accused of shoddy workmanship. No less a personage than President Khama has weighed in on this issue, telling a South African newspaper in 2013 that on account of this type of workmanship, in future the government would exercise more discretion in whom it does construction business with. Taking cue from its leader, the Botswana Democratic Party (BDP) opened up a conversation on this topic. The comment stream of a BDP national council meeting that followed shortly thereafter was generally negative. 

According to sources, the highest-scoring tender for the Kazungula Bridge project was from a Chinese company called China Major Bridge Engineering Corporation. However, the company was passed up for the job in favour of the second-best bidder – Daewoo Engineering and Construction, a South Korean company which built the Serowe-Orapa road in the early 1980s.

In the larger scheme of international relations, Botswana is a lightweight but under the current administration, it has consistently demonstrated futile desire to fight in the heavyweight division. Last year, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation issued a press statement condemning China’s military occupation of a contested archipelago in an area known only as the South China Sea. China deployed fighter jets and surface-to-air missiles on the islands which neighbours Indonesia, Taiwan, Philippines, Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia, Cambodia, Thailand and Singapore have also laid claim to. What is at stake is the economic value of this maritime asset: one-third of the world’s ships sail through its waters and it holds huge oil and gas reserves beneath its seabed. In response to the press statement, China tried to pressure Botswana into making a retraction but that failed. What happened next is unclear. As Duma Boko, the Leader of the Opposition believed and told parliament, China closed its embassy in Gaborone. Conversely, the Chinese Embassy denies that it ever closed its offices and the government bench hauled Boko over the coals for his statement.

The latest development in this worsening relationship involves the scheduled visit to Botswana by Tibet’s spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, whom China regards as a separatist.

In its dealing with other countries, China is clear about the fact that it considers violating the One China policy as the red line. African countries – South Africa included – know better than to cross this line. In 2011, the South African government blocked the Dalai Lama from attending Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s 80th birthday by denying him a visa. Speaking in Beijing at the time, a Chinese foreign ministry spokesman said that “China’s position of opposing the Dalai Lama visiting any country with ties to China is clear and consistent.” China considers hosting the Dalai Lama to be meddling in its internal affairs and actively sabotaging its national unity effort. The rising Asian giant plays no small part in the so-called “Africa Rising” enterprise and countries want to maintain the status quo. In this respect, the Dalai Lama is an economic security threat because hosting him can result in adverse economic consequences.

To make sense of the Botswana government’s explanation about the Dalai Lama, one needs to first understand how logical fallacy works. That is because at every turn, the truth of the premise and the truth of the conclusion pull in different directions. Permanent Secretary Goitsemang has sought to eliminate the government’s role in this visit by stating that it is “not hosting” the Dalai Lama and that his visit to Botswana “will be a private venture.” He adds that “Botswana is a free and open society where anyone is at liberty to visit as long as they comply with the country’s immigration regulations.”

Actually, it is the government that issues the visa without which the Dalai Lama cannot enter Botswana. The conference he will lecture at will be held at the government-owned University of Botswana. The state president, Lieutenant General Ian Khama, will give the opening address and the name of ministry’s own Chief of Protocol, Daphne Kadiwa, is on the list of event organisers. With specific regard to the latter, Goitsemang told parliament’s Public Accounts Committee that Kadiwa is participating in her personal and not official capacity. That notwithstanding, her official email address is provided on a brochure advertising the event.

Kadiwa acting in her personal capacity is an interesting issue

To the extent that the Dalai Lama is a national security threat, it doesn’t matter whether Kadiwa is involved in his visit in her official or personal capacity because she is the same person.

Contrary to what Goitsemang says, there is ample evidence that the government has a big say in whether to allow private visits by foreigners to go ahead. Despite being in compliance with immigration regulations, South African politician Julius Malema, American movie star Rick Yune, British lawyer Gordon Bennett who represented the Bushmen in the Central Kgalagadi Game Reserve case and Malawian “Fire!” church pastor, Shepherd Bushiri are among private visitors who have been denied visas by the government. 

By hosting the Dalai Lama in August, Botswana – which insists it still respects the One China policy – will be crossing China’s red line. This is making some people very uneasy and the worst possible outcome is China imposing economic sanctions that will adversely affect Batswana who buy building materials in Shanghai and clothes in Chinese stores.