If anyone at the Government Enclave needed evidence that Botswana doesn’t matter in high-stakes international politics, the lack of such evidence is abundant online.
Unable to take refuge in its insignificance in politics of such nature, Botswana has for some time now been issuing statements on all manner of controversial international issues. Three weeks ago, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation issued a press statement condemning China’s military occupation of a contested archipelago in an area known only as the South China Sea. China has deployed fighter jets and surface-to-air missiles on the islands which neighbours Indonesia, Taiwan, Philippines, Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia, Cambodia, Thailand and Singapore have also laid claim to. What is at stake is the economic value of this maritime asset: one-third of the world’s ships sail through its waters and it is also believed to hold huge oil and gas reserves beneath its seabed.
In response to the press statement, China tried to pressure Botswana into making a retraction but that failed. The result was the suspension of diplomatic relations between the two countries as China closed its embassy in Gaborone. This action should have generated tons of international press but that is not happening. As at press time, digital footprint on this development was limited to stories by the local media. Diplomatic missions in Gaborone would have notified their respective countries about the Botswana-China tension but the press in countries that Botswana is trying to impress hasn’t reported the story. Among other things, valuable editorial acreage would be consumed by first having to explain where Botswana is and how it figures in the grand scheme of things. More than grandstanding, intervening in high stakes international politics is ultimately about making an impact and Botswana’s actions can’t have any meaningful impact on the dynamics of the South China Sea. For major international publications, there would be precious little to report beyond saying that a small African country wants the Chinese military to leave the archipelago. This would work as comedy – not serious international politics.
By taking on China, Botswana has bit off more than it can chew. As an indication of just how powerful the Asian nation is, South Africa (the most powerful nation on the continent which is also a member of the G20) thrice denied the Dalai Lama a visa for fear of angering China. As the spiritual leader of Tibet, the Dalai Lama wants greater autonomy for the country, ambition China views as separatism. South Africa knew China would punish it badly if it allowed the Dalai Lama to visit. After what happened a fortnight ago, Botswana would do well to brace itself for such action.
The Umbrella for Democratic Change (UDC) has been quick to react to the saga, condemning the Botswana government for its actions. This action guarantees that a future UDC government will start on a clean slate with the Chinese and not have to answer for actions of the Botswana Democratic Party. The worst case scenario for the BDP is China helping UDC to take over the reins of power.