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Scores of Botswana investors who import their merchandise from China were last week left in the lurch after Chinese President Xi Jinping ordered an indefinite closure of the Chinese Embassy in Gaborone.
Staff at the Chinese embassy was ordered to down tool and processing of visa applications has been halted as Beijing expresses its anger with a press statement issued by the Botswana government last week condemning China’s position on the China Sea controversy.
At the time of going to press China and Botswana were locked in their opposing positions and it was not clear when the Chinese embassy in Gaborone would open for business.
The diplomatic relations between Gaborone and Beijing which have been simmering for sometime boiled over last week after Botswana issued a press statement accusing China of imposing “its power over others to make claims because of “its economy or military.”
The Chinese Embassy learnt about the press release through a questionnaire sent to its secretariat on Wednesday by the Sunday Standard. The Chinese Ambassador to Botswana Zheng Zhuqiang immediately forwarded the Botswana government press statement and Sunday Standard questionnaire to Beijing.
Sunday Standard has established that the Chinese Government on Thursday instructed its ambassador to Botswana Zheng Zhuqiang to schedule a meeting on Friday with Botswana’s Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation Minister, Pelonomi Venson Moitoi. The Chinese President instructed ambassador Zhuqiang to confront Minister Venson-Moitoi to confirm if the press statement was an official position of the Botswana Government. The meeting which was expected to clear the air ended in a stalemate after Minister Venson-Moitoi allegedly insisted that Botswana would neither retract the press statement nor go back on her position. Diplomatic sources told Sunday Standard that Venson-Moitoi told Zhuqiang that despite the supposedly good relationship that the two countries have enjoyed over the years, Botswana this time holds a different view on the way China is handling unresolved claims to the South China Sea.
In response to Venson-Moitoi, Zhuqiang told her that his Government was not happy with the way Botswana publicly communicated its displeasure through a press statement instead of following diplomatic channels. But Venson Moitoi insisted that the Botswana government stood by the press statement.
Immediately after the meeting Zhuqiang relayed the message to President Jinping who instructed the Chinese embassy to temporally close the embassy on Friday.
Sunday Standard has turned up information indicating that the diplomatic tension between Botswana and China has been simmering behind the scenes and Beijing suspects there is a third force behind last week’s vitriolic outburst by Botswana.
It has since emerged that while a number of African countries have applied for funds from the $60 billion that was pledged by Jinping in December last year at the Forum on China Africa Cooperation held in South Africa, Botswana has not shown interest or applied for funding.
At the time of the summit President Ian Khama delegated Vice President Mokgweetsi Masisi. He is reported to have tendered an apology that he would miss the summit as he was scheduled to attend an HIV/AIDS event in Tonota which he allegedly missed.
In a terse response to Sunday Standard enquiries, Embassy of China Tang Shenping said “The Embassy of China in Botswana believes that the arguments of the Press Release on South China Sea by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation dated 17 February 2016 are completely contrary to the actual facts.”
For her part, Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation spokesperson Tebogo Motshome said “As you are no doubt aware, Botswana strongly believes in the peaceful settlement of disputes between states, as well as in the principle of sovereign equality of states and mutual respect.”
Motshome who was also responding to a questionnaire from this publication added that “In this regard, the Government of Botswana has found it fitting to tender friendly and constructive advice to all the countries involved in the longstanding dispute over the South China Sea Islands.”
Motshome said “Since efforts to resolve this protracted matter have so far defied solution, it is Botswana’s considered view that other means, such as international arbitration, should be employed.”
While Botswana did not mention China by name, Botswana called on the Asian power to take full responsibility for the disputes with a view to resolving them without recourse to armed confrontations.
Asked if Botswana was making reference to China in its statement, Motshome said “We have deliberately decided not to mention any country by name as we believe that a lasting solution to the dispute will depend on the collective political will and commitment of all the concerned parties. We therefore, stand by our original statement.”
Sunday Standard also sought to establish why Botswana did not engage China through diplomatic channels instead of issuing a thinly veiled public ‘reprimand’ to the Asian power house for a series of disputes with its neighbours.
The statement in question reads thus “No country, no matter how big its economy or military should impose its power over others to make claims, which may escalate tensions that could result in conflicts. It is Botswana’s position that a peaceful resolution of the current disputes will augur well for international peace and security.”
Curiously, when the USA condemned the Government of Botswana over the arrest of the Sunday Standard editor, Outsa Mokone, the Botswana Government accused USA of “...without even having first approached the appropriate authorities for clarification on the matter. In this respect, we can confirm that at no point prior to the issuance of the said press statement did any representative of the US government approach our Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation, as is the accepted diplomatic norm.”
Botswana’s thinly veiled attack against China comes at a time when media report claimed China was deploying surface-to-air missiles on an island in the Paracel chain in the South China Sea.
The South China Sea is home to a string of messy territorial disputes, with China, Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam wrangling over the sovereignty of island chains and nearby waters.