Masisi’s visit to China exposes Botswana’s recent foreign policy mis-steps

27 Aug 2018

This week President Mokgweetsi Masisi will travel to China, there to meet with one of the world’s most powerful men – the Chinese President, Xi Jinping.

The visit is nothing short of a steep climb.

Just less than year ago, China and Botswana were involved in an ugly diplomatic spat.

Feeling stabbed on the back, China was on the verge of recalling its Ambassador to Gaborone.

Botswana Government had just announced that the Dalai Lama was due in Gaborone.

“Botswana as a sovereign state would not be dictated to by anybody,” shouted the then Minister of Foreign Affairs, Pelonomi Venson.

A little earlier, Botswana Government had released a public statement basically calling out as provocative China’s behavior in the South China Sea.

It was much more than the Communist Republic could take – especially coming from a so-called friend. More than crossing what are well-known red lines, Botswana’s attitude amounted to meddling in China’s internal politics.

For China the rules surrounding the Dalai Lama, like those about Taiwan are no-go zones.

Such rules are implemented with uniform rigidity, similar zeal and with scientific consistency. There are no exceptions, no discretions and no flexibilities.

When it comes to Taiwan redlines what rules China apply to the United States will also apply to Botswana for example – and without exception.

After Botswana announced that preparations were advanced to welcome the Dalai Lama, the normally restrained China could no longer take much more of it. And felt being inexorably hectored into self-defence.

China is very sensitive when it comes to its history.

Since the establishment of the current republic in 1953, Chinese leaders have been working round the clock at addressing what they interpret as centuries old acts of aggression and humiliation against their country.

The result has been a phenomenal and indeed unprecedented push in human development that history has ever known.

Because of their history and suffering at the hands of outsiders, especially by countries like Japan and more recently the United States, the leaders of China take serious exception against the slightest perception that any country might be trying to undermine their sovereignty.

Victimhood flows in the Chinese bloodstream.

Today China is the world’s second largest economy.

It was not always like this.

In the last 40 years the country has lifted from poverty well over 700 million people.

It is work in progress as a majority of rural dwellers have remained largely untouched by the phenomenal progress in development.

This past week I was part of a small group of journalists hosted by the Ambassador of China to Botswana at his residence in Gaborone.

Dr Zhao Yanbo reminded us that he is a generation of Chinese leaders that were born into a poverty-stricken China.

Opportunities were few and far between, so too were life ambitions – limited and very seldom attained.

He said as a destitute young boy working in a farm he dreamt of one day becoming a soldier or if luckier going to a university.

Like many other Chinese peasants of his generation, his aspirations were limited to one day owning a wrist watch, a bicycle and a radio transmitter.

China’s growing global assertiveness and pride is reflected in Dr Yanbo’s soft but sure-footed demeanour.

“Today I have made so much money that it will take me all the way beyond retirement,” he says.

Despite its stated goal never to interfere in other countries’ affairs china’s growing power and affluence has allowed the country powerful beyond its reach.

Today China is today a biggest trading partner with at least 120 countries.

China is the second biggest international investor after only the United States.

That Botswana’s foreign policy needs change is not debatable. Focus should be more on trade, security and economy – and less on sentimentality and vague historical nostalgia.

Masisi’s visit to China provides him with a major geopolitical encounter since becoming president in April.

He will be in China for a State visit at the invitation of Xi Jinping, but also for the all too important FOCAC (Forum on China-Africa Cooperation.)

For Botswana’s foreign policy the importance of these two assignments, happening almost concurrently cannot be overstated.

No wonder the whole of government machinery is under effusion of excitement over the President’s impending visit to China.

No question Batswana will be keen to see deliverables from their president when he gets back.

For most of Africa a visit to China by a Head of State is not successful if it does not deliver gifts like loans and investments.

That same yardstick will apply to Masisi’s visit too.

But there is more to it as well.

The visit provides Masisi with unprecedented opportunity to once and for all rebrand, reset, rebalance and recalibrate Botswana’s toxic foreign policy under Ian Khama.