Masisi re-engineers Botswana/China relations

27 Aug 2018

If the prodigal son had fathomed his to be the only return that would be openly received in conscious oblivion of the flaws he had unmasked in his character, he had done so out of an innocent unawareness that epochs later there would a country called Botswana that would follow in similar fashion. The biblical account of the prodigal son doesn’t provide for an exact comparison but it presents an analogy that steers very closely. The prodigal son in this specific case refers to the state of the Republic of Botswana and the receiver is the People’s Republic of China. The narrative of the two countries is captured within the context of their bilateral relations which this article has zoomed into. 

The establishment of the relations between Botswana and China dates back to 1975. Given the recognized multi-faceted and complex events that have unfolded, particularly in the period post 2000, it may be best to begin the account of the relationship from the current state down to the point that spun the wheel in the direction of where things presently stand.

The new in office President of Botswana, Mokgweetsi Masisi, will in the coming week participate in the 2018 Beijing Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC). The Forum is scheduled for September 3-4, 2018 in Beijing, and is marked a significant event that denotes progressive relations between China and the respective African countries she has diplomatic ties with. Participation in FOCAC by respective African countries is voluntary however given the magnitude of China’s near hegemony in the global economy, the countries’ engagement leans more on compulsory joining in than is discretional. 18 years ago China held the first FOCAC Ministerial conference in Beijing and every three years since 2000 a series of these meetings have been held. FOCAC was initiated by China and its track record indicates a substitute to the historical development assistance which African countries have traditionally received. It also serves as a space in which dialogue, agreements, proposals are channeled with the goal of enriching areas of cooperation. In accordance with the weight assigned to the Forum the participation of President Masisi in the 2018 meeting serves as Botswana’s voice in communicating and reiterating its commitment to her relations with China. This is suggested particularly because the Former President Ian Khama’s administration had exerted strains that detangled the fabric of cooperation that his father and the first President of Botswana had stitched with China post the country’s independence.

It is arguably not so much about threads that had come loose between the two countries as could be expected in relational dealings as it is about the concern of pundits who put forward that Botswana had ridged itself into a confused and hypocritical tone in her dealings with foreign nations. The Botswana-China relations emerged as a problem area, owing in part to the discordance of Botswana’s foreign policy. Frank Youngman, a Professor at the University of Botswana and former Vice Chancellor of the University, chronicles in his comprehensive recent researches the historical as well as emerging perspectives to the Botswana-China relations. Youngman found that “there are greater challenges at the diplomatic level than at any time since 1975. It is clear that the area of economic relations has become the main source of problems in the bilateral relationship,” particularly referring to examples post 2006. Youngman identified the economic relations as the area that has been most visible aspect of Botswana-China relations. He highlighted that Chinese came to play a dominant role in the construction industry, mainly working on large public sector projects (hospitals, roads, dams, airports, stadiums, educational buildings, housing) and Chinese shops in the retail sector spread across the country. According to Youngman the first Chinese construction company, China Civil, started business in Botswana in 1984. It is in the construction sector that diplomatic tensions emerged, as indicated by Youngman’s research. Notably in 2013, as was assessed by Youngman former President Ian Khama made public pronouncements ostracizing Chinese construction companies for their shoddy performance on government contracts. “The tone of the interview was very negative towards China. The interview signaled the extent of government’s dissatisfaction with aspects of relations with China,” read the research. The research stated that the heat of the diplomatic tensions alighted with the decamping of Sinohydro, a significant Chinese company which undertook five major government projects (roads, dams, a terminal building for main airport in Gaborone) following the termination of its contract by Botswana government due to the debacle of embroilment in allegations of poor workmanship and corruption. “The departure in negative circumstances of such a significant Chinese company (which ENR (2013) ranks as number 14 in the world among international contractors is an indication of the scale of the problems currently facing economic relations between the two countries.”

Given the account of where the relations presently stand and events that led to that point, it could be suggested that Masisi’s visit to China next week signals the re-engineering of the Botswana-China relations. During his tenure former President Ian Khama delegated roles of participation to then his Vice President, Mokgweetsi Masisi, and one could assume that now as President he is in a position to re-wire the foreign policy challenges that he witnessed emerge. It is presumed in this case that Masisi, with experience obtained from his delegated roles, has identified areas to rectify. His participation in FOCAC seems to suggest that. It will, as did with Mogae in 2006 Beijing Forum, ‘signal a high point’ in the state to state relations.  This is particularly so because the former President, in the 10 years of his tenure, didn’t visit China. While the former President made public pronouncements that heavily critiqued China, the new President has taken a pro-active role in asserting Botswana’s commitment to her bilateral relations. This is supported by proclamations he made last week in a statement published by a local Chinese media, China Investment Magazine on his thoughts on a community with a shared future. The statement was released under the special edition of the 2018 Beijing Summit of the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation. President Masisi’s tone and language reads in sync with China’s voice. President Masisi borrowed China’s President, Xi Jinping’s vision of a shared future, articulating its importance. He reiterated the goal of FOCAC as if to make clear that Botswana is fully on board to realize the benefits of its mechanism. It would appear President Masisi is ploughing through the fog of the tensions that accumulated over the past recent years. His thoughts and participation could be regarded as playing the role of a wiper to pave and make clear the way for a renewed face in the Botswana-China relations.

“As Botswana we remain ready to engage in this mutually beneficial partnership and cooperation with the People’s Republic of China. We believe that substantial and sustained investment and robust two-way trade would stimulate economic growth and job creation towards Botswana’s ambition of a prosperous, high income country by 2036.” 

This plays well into the Chinese State Councilor and Foreign Minister, Wang Yi’s address to the media last week Wednesday ahead of the Forum. “The summit is expected to usher a new face for the Belt and road initiative and Africa’s development,” he said, adding that “China has committed a lot of cooperation and assistance and such promises are being delivered.”

Sunday Standard had reported that following the 2015 FOCAC in Johannesburg, South Africa where President Xi Jinping committed $60 billion of loan financing to African countries Botswana submitted proposals for a soft loan funding in water resources as a major project that could benefit from the funding. The amount that had been proposed for funding was however not disclosed. A Chinese Embassy official expressed disappointment at the then proposal arguing that to heed to her urgent need in diversifying her economy Botswana could have widened its  proposal scope in order to spur further economic growth. It remains to be seen if Botswana will extend, and to what degree, her soft loan proposals.    

Does Masisi understand public diplomacy? This is yet to be made evident as his participation in 2018 FOCAC begins ‘a wait and see’ of his Presidency in re-defining and re-working the bilateral relations. Youngman had in his 2017 research suggested that to mend the tensions frequent high level visits of politicians and government officials between Botswana and China should be undertaken, with priority given to a state visit by the President of Botswana to China. The 2018 FOCAC provided an opportunity for such a visit, which Masisi responded positively to. This would appear to signal a renewed approach to the bilateral relations.

It appears that Botswana will not necessarily have to work too hard to navigate the relations back to normalcy. China seems willing to iron out the creases that had folded during Ian Khama’s Presidency. It is in other words welcoming back Botswana. Botswana International Affairs and Cooperation Minister Unity Dow and expressed his anticipation to welcome President Mokgweetsi Masisi to the upcoming 2018 Beijing FOCAC. This was reported by Xinhua, a local Chinese media.