In what will become the costliest and worst foreign policy blunder of his 10-year administration, President Ian Khama will feature as a speaker at a controversial event that Botswana will host in August.
According to statement from the Mind & Life Institute in the United States, Khama will deliver the opening address of a three-day conference that will be held at the University of Botswana. Also featured as a speaker is former Vice President, Ponatshego Kedikilwe whom the Mind & Life Institute statement says “is celebrated among the foremost leaders of the liberation struggle and advancement of democracy in Southern Africa.” The only other Motswana who will participate in the event is Professor Lily Mafela, a history lecturer at the University of Botswana. The statement from the Mind & Life Institute lists the name of Daphne Kadiwa, the Chief of Protocol in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation, among those of contacts.
With his participation in the Dalai Lama, Khama is taking the biggest gamble of his administration. For decades now, China and the Dalai Lama have been feuding over the sovereignty of Tibet. China pursues an aggressive One-China policy through which it wants the world to accept that there is only China and no independent states of Taiwan and Tibet. On account of advocating for an independent Tibet, China sees the Dalai Lama as a separatist. China demands that foreign nations should adhere to this policy by having absolutely no relations or contact with the leaders of Taiwan and Tibet’s government in exile which the Dalai Lama is the titular head of.
Even the most powerful nation knows better than to antagonise China on this issue. Days after being elected US president and in a dramatic departure from official policy, Donald Trump made a telephone call to Taiwan’s president, Tsaing Ing-wen. Thereafter, a frantic Obama administration had to reassure China that the US still adhered to the One-China policy. Trump, who has proved to be uncommonly stubborn, ended up affirming the One-China policy. Next door in South Africa, the Dalai Lama has been denied a visa thrice because the government doesn’t want to incur the wrath of a displeased China. That is the position of all other African nations ÔÇô except one.
The statement from the Mind & Life Institute says that “the historic visit by the Dalai Lama to Botswana is his only planned destination in Africa.” The wording is deceptive because it gives the impression that Botswana is somehow lucky to be hosting the Dalai Lama. The reality is that, unlike Botswana, other African nations don’t want to offend China because they know how economically ruinous the consequences will be. Having adopted rooftop diplomacy since April 1, 2008, Botswana has been playing hard ball with foreign states and now seems determined to go for broke. One likely outcome is that the country might also literally go broke as a result of hosting the Dalai Lama. A source who maintains professional relations with the Chinese Embassy says that in the event the Dalai Lama comes to Botswana, China will immediately cut all ties ÔÇô diplomatic, trade and otherwise ÔÇô with Botswana. The effects will be felt after Khama has stepped down and likely misattributed to those in power then. China is particularly important for Botswana’s diamond trade as well as infrastructure development. For politicians like Khama, it is the source of blankets that are routinely donated to the poor electorate to bring out easy votes.
Oddly, Botswana has always adhered to the One-China policy since establishing diplomatic relations with China in 1975. The decision to allow the Dalai Lama reflects Khama’s foreign policy posture that is oriented towards pleasing the west. This posture is oblivious to the fact that even western nations themselves don’t want to offend the rising Oriental nation.