Enter the dragon – Botswana rolls out red carpet to China

10 Sep 2018

The peep of day transpired as the aura that filled the Great Hall of China, a moment which could later be marked the turning point, in fact the beginning, of a period in which Botswana and China would rise to new heights. The respective countries’ flags towered at the one far end of the long table, above the august political figures who occupied seats across one another, with one side being the Botswana delegation and the other the Chinese delegation. Of these representatives two distinguished faces, one the President of the Republic of Botswana and the other the President of the People’s Republic of China, exchanged words which exuded the dawn that pervaded the Hall. The particular day was August 31, 2018 and it was the first day of President Masisi’s three day state visit in Beijing, China. 

“As a country we’re determined to take measures to benefit from China’s phenomenal growth,” said Masisi during the meeting, pointing to the being there of Ministers who had accompanied him as sureness that his administration stood ready to jumpstart the cooperation. More than simply appearing with the President the presence of the Ministers could be seen as indicating the seriousness with which Botswana is taking an active hand in the bilateral cooperation. The state visit happened six months into Masisi’s Presidency at the invitation of President Xi Jinping. President Masisi said the meeting reflected a “special significance as it represents an opportunity to renew our friendship and broaden the scope of our bilateral cooperation.” It could be suggested that President XiJinping’s invitation was a bid to amend the bilateral relations and President Masisi’s acceptance of it supported by his reasserting utterances was an acknowledgement of the mending. 

In an interview with the national newspaper, Botswana Dailynews, President Masisi revealed that  China canceled a debt of P80 million which Botswana owed her. The decision by China conveys apt symbolism of the renewed bilateral relationship that dawned the two countries. If one considers this cancellation it is telling, from a figurative perspective, that the past troubled waters which stirred between the two countries have now run far down the bridge, beckoning the restored relations to newer horizons which only time will reveal. Moreover China previously disqualified Botswana from receiving grants on the basis of her status as an upper middle income country however Daily News reported that P340 million Pula was presented to Botswana. This gesture could be read as the ‘first lasting impression’ which China wanted to leave Botswana with as the journey of the revived friendship unfolds into the future.     

“Many of us in Botswana and of course across the globe marvel at the remarkable transformation of China and the development trajectory of your great country.” It was observable from President Masisi’s words that he accords a highly aerated air of respect to President Xi, particularly relating to his hand on China’s development path. One could think that President Masisi has availed himself, by extension Botswana, to become a student of President Xi Jinping’s vision that speaks to a shared future through which both China and African countries are anticipated to mutually benefit. In China President Xi is affectionately called ‘Xi dada’ loosely translated as father of the nation, it seems that the same effect has rubbed off on President Masisi who, as was carried by the tone of his words, emitted the same reverence to the Chinese President. President Masisi recalled his first encounter with President Xi, who had visited Botswana in 2010, then as Vice President of China. 

“Botswana values China, as a strategic partner and stands ready to broaden the scope of cooperation particularly towards the country’s direct investment and infrastructure development that will create the much needed jobs,” said Masisi. When it comes to China it is now outrightly obvious that Masisi’s administration and that of former President Ian Khama repel each other as great opposites. The President’s vigor and stout reaffirmation of the Botswana-China relations could be seen as signifying the rashness to make up for what was ‘lost’ in the past decade, a period in which Former President Ian Khama’s administration blatantly ignored China. In the world today China is economically regarded a powerhouse, as demonstrated by its current ranking as the second biggest economy after the U.S. and third largest foreign direct investor. It could be for that reason that Botswana finds herself not wanting to be an underdog at the face of China’s resourceful power in the global economy. 

One could ask how for the past 10 years Masisi worked under Khama’s administration, particularly as his second in command, and watched the relations wither while he harbored a different thought process. It is perhaps the reason that Masisi has wasted no time in making sure that Botswana follows the uniformity demonstrated by the rest of the African continent of heeding to China’s vision. An underlying idea beneath Masisi’s departure from Khama’s administration could also suggest that his administration is filled with a quest and zest to achieve what his predecessor failed to accomplish. In that regard President Masisi could be regarded an appropriate suitor for such a bold mission. 

Following the state visit President Masisi participated in the Forum on China and Africa cooperation (FOCAC) which took place on September 3-4, 2018. The common rhetoric of FOCAC is win-win cooperation between China and African countries. A question to be asked is what is Botswana’s win from her co-operation with China. Speaking at a different event, the Botswana-China business forum which had been led by the Botswana Investment and Trade Centre (BITC) on August 31, 2018 in Beijing, President Masisi gave light to the potential of Botswana increasing her trade with China.  

“We have been an independent country, for a little over 50 years now. We too know that we must produce and trade with those who are near to us and those who are far. We know that we must draw upon the knowledge, experience and ability of others to augment our own efforts. This is what brings us to China today: the search and pursuit of that.” He followed this by extending a personal invitation of Chinese investment in Botswana.    

President Masisi attributed the potential economic benefit of Botswana’s cooperation with China to the creation of jobs. According to research by Professor Frank Younngman of the University of University (UB), a public perception emerged which regarded China’s economic involvement as disadvantageous as it apparently restricted citizen participation in especially the construction sector. This suggests that President Masisi may have to work towards achieving greater public support in enhancing the Botswana-China relations.    

In response to the task of gaining public support an expert in Public Diplomacy, Professor Maitseo Bolaane of UB, advised that “expectations concerning local employment should ideally be included in the negotiations and final agreement for every cooperation project with China, at least in the public sector.” Professor Bolaane also noted that the perception that Chinese companies are bringing in a lot of Chinese workers is often not entirely accurate as it is expensive to do so, adding that for reasons of cost-effectiveness many Chinese enterprises employ local workers. “It is equally important, however, that local people are also employed in higher-level technical and managerial positions, that there is enforcement of local labor laws and transfer of skills. These issues should also receive attention from the early stages of negotiating a project,” she recommended.         

It may possibly be under President Mokgweetsi Masisi’s administration that Botswana’s bilateral relations with China is reborn into a completely new face that could see China assume a highly conspicuous presence in this small populated African nation. The task remains that both countries win and that it will be the negotiations which Botswana enters into with China which will truly shape the renewed relations.