Ministry doesn’t expect Dalai Lama visit to affect trade with China

18 Jun 2017

Allowing Tibet’s spiritual leader in exile to visit Botswana seems a terribly misguided idea because it could have ruinous economic consequences. However, it turns out that economic diplomacy is the last thing on the minds of the powers that be.

“The criteria for allowing foreign nationals to visit Botswana are not necessarily based on the benefits to be derived,” says Gaeimelwe Goitsemang, the Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation.

One of the benefits that Botswana currently derives from its relations with China is a profitable commercial relationship that facilitates the sale of Botswana’s diamonds. China is now the second largest consumer of Botswana’s diamonds. Government effort to diversify the national economy away from diamond mining has not been successful, thus provoking the ire of an important buyer seems a reckless thing to do. As it turns out though, the Botswana government doesn’t see this issue in economic terms.  In response to the question of Sunday Standard’s question about whether Botswana has considered the possibility of cutting off diplomatic and trade ties with Botswana, Goitsemang responded:

“Botswana and China enjoy excellent bilateral relations that have stood the test of time. Accordingly, we do not anticipate that a visit by a private individual can in anyway sour these longstanding and mutually beneficial relations.”

However, at no time has the test been strict observance or the One China policy which is fundamental to China’s foreign relations. China wants countries that it has relations with to accept that Taiwan and Tibet form part of its territory. Some 58 years ago, the Dalai Lama and thousands of his disciples fled Tibet following a failed revolt. Over the years, the Dalai Lama has become pragmatic enough to accept that Tibet cannot be independent of China. However, he insists on an arrangement that grants Tibet autonomy while it remains part of China. The Chinese government doesn’t agree and the two parties have yet to find common ground on this issue. China considers a rejection of the One China policy to be a threat to its territorial sovereignty and it conducts foreign relations on the basis that countries should not have any dealings with Tibet and Taiwan as separate entities. China is clear about its position that hosting the Dalai Lama – whom it sees as a separatist – violates the One-China policy.

A hop and a skip away from the northern gate of the State House in Gaborone is the Chinese Embassy. This property has a very interesting history that, in part, helps illuminate Botswana’s position with regard to the One China policy. Under the founding president, Sir Seretse Khama, the newly independent republic of Botswana went against this policy when it established diplomatic relations with Taiwan. The Taiwanese diplomats occupied the piece of land in question. With the progress of time, Botswana realised that its recognition of Taiwan was detrimental to its economic and other interests. That realization precipitated an about-turn that resulted in the embrace of the One China policy. Botswana cut off ties with Taiwan and established diplomatic relations with China. All this happened at a time that future foreign affairs minister, Phandu Skelemani, was a fresh-faced lawyer working for the Attorney General Chambers. Speaking in 2009 at an event held at the Chinese Embassy but never once mentioning Taiwan, Skelemani recalled doing the paperwork to transfer the host’s venue to China.

Since establishing diplomatic relations with China, Botswana has strictly observed the One-China Policy. Goitsemang insists that by hosting the Dalai Lama, Botswana is not in any way abandoning its commitment to this policy.

“The visit by the Dalai Lama has no correlation with Botswana’s foreign policy position on the One China policy. We wish to emphatically state that the government of Botswana is not hosting the Dalai Lama. His visit is purely private and organized by the Mind and Life Institute,” he said.

The latter is a United States organisation and on its letterhead, lists the Dalai Lama as its honorary chairman.

Goitsemang repeated to Sunday Standard what he told parliament’s Public Accounts Committee last week – that the ministry and the Chinese Embassy have discussed this issue, with each side stating its position. He wouldn’t give a precise answer to the question of whether China is “comfortable” with the Dalai Lama’s visit. While he may have chosen to equivocate on this issue, it is no secret that China is never comfortable with the Dalai Lama’s foreign travel because it represents (at least to China) rejection of the One China Policy.

On the other hand, Professor Monageng Mogalakwe of the University of Botswana, believes that it is not in Botswana’s economic interest to antagonise a country that is surefootedly marching to future superpower status.

“China is the most populous country in the world, accounting for quarter of the world population. It is reputed to be the second largest economy in the world, after the United States of America. Some reports say that, in fact, China has actually caught up with the USA and the two countries are on par, whilst other reports say that China is likely to overtake the United States as the world’s largest economy by the early 2020s. China is therefore not just another Third World country,” Mogalakwe says.

With its burgeoning middle class, China has become the second largest consumer of Botswana diamonds, as well as third largest import supplier.

Says Mogalakwe: “It is estimated that there are about 600 Chinese companies in Botswana operating in the retail sector. These companies are to be found all over Botswana. These companies have also provided Botswana citizens - especially those at the lower end of the consumer market, with alternative to South African chain stores in products such as electronics, furniture, clothing, as well as commercial and industrial hardware, to mention a few.  All this is because of the about 40 years of cordial Botswana-China relations carefully husbanded by Seretse Khama, Quett Masire and Festus Mogae.”

Missing from that list is President Ian Khama under whom relations with China have noticeably soured.

Mogalakwe asserts that on the basis of the foregoing, and to the extent that China objects to the Dalai Lama’s visit, such visit is not in Botswana’s best interests. His theory is that if China retaliates by way of economic sanctions, the impact on Botswana will be “catastrophic.” While the foreign policy that Goitsemang articulates places little premium on economic diplomacy, Mogalakwe’s own view is that such policy “should take cognizance of the fact that it is not in the best interests of Botswana to antagonize a world power such as China, which has such significant presence in Botswana.” 

All in all, what does Botswana gain by hosting the Dalai Lama? Goitsemang responded: We are not hosting the Dalai Lama as your question seems to portray. Instead, Dalai Lama’s visit to Botswana will be a private venture. As you would appreciate, 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. The criteria for allowing foreign nationals to visit Botswana are not necessarily based on the benefits to be derived.”

Even as the Dalai Lama issue takes up more and more editorial acreage in newspapers, the Chinese Embassy is still not commenting on the issue. However, what China did to a First World country in 2008 may be instructive. In that year, then French president, Nicolas Sarkozy who at the time also held the European Union’s rotating presidency, met with the Dalai Lama in Poland. China retaliated by calling off a scheduled EU-China summit. Two years later, two researchers at the University of Gottingen in Germany published the findings of a study – the first empirical analysis of its kind – that demonstrated the economic consequences of top leadership meeting the Dalai Lama. One researcher, Andreas Fuchs told CNN: “We wanted to find out the impact of the rising role of China in the world ... to find out what we should expect of China’s role in the world in the coming years. It is clear that politics has played a huge role in China’s commercial relationships.” The main finding was that countries whose top leadership meet with Tibet’s exiled spiritual leader lose, on average, 8.1 percent in exports to China two years following the meeting. The researchers discovered that exports to China decreased only after the Dalai Lama met with heads of state, such as presidents, prime ministers, kings, queens and the Pope. No negative impact was found after meetings of the Dalai Lama with lower-ranking officials. President Khama will officiate at the event, which obviously means that he will meet the Dalai Lama.

If it is any consolation at all, the “Dalai Lama Effect” wears off after two years, with trade returning to some normalcy. Fuchs told CNN that China itself has an interest in the restoration of commercial relationships but always ensures it expresses its anger about leaders meeting the Dalai Lama.