Tuesday, July 7, 2020

Masisi’s threesome with Abe and Jinping is perfectly OK!

President Mokgweetsi Masisi is the unhappy split object in a traumatic love triangle with China’s Xi Jinping and Japan’s Shenzo Abe.

Former president Lt Gen Ian Khama had no such problem.

He courted Abe and spurned Jinping. Masisi is however bucking his predecessor yet again. The relationship developing between Botswana’s president and his Chinese counterpart was on full display at the recent Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC).

Masisi’s over the top display of affection for Jinping made international headlines.

“To China, her president and citizens, we admire and hold you in very high regard. Keep the innovation, friendliness and international outlook as friendly as the Chinese spirit”, Masisi gushed.

He took his charm offensive the extra mile.

No sooner had he unpacked his suitcase and dusted the Beijing dirt off his shoes than he reached for his mouse and keypad to flight a charm sparkling Facebook post, parroting Jinping’s repudiation of charges that China’s investment in Africa will lead to a debt trap.

Jinping a serious “blesser” had just opened his purse for Botswana, and Masisi was probably singing for his supper. That is a more innocent explanation. At worst, Masisi’s Facebook post was probably a stalking horse for a much bigger issue lurking in the background.

Coming two months after Japan’s Prime Minister Shenzo Abe warned African leaders about the dangers of becoming excessively indebted to China, Masisi’s Facebook post was a thumbs down to his Japanese counterpart. This was no minor slip. International diplomacy can be very petty. It has a penchant to fixate over who said what, to whom at this or that occasion. And in the febrile world of Tokyo – Beijing relations which are characterized by territorial disputes and competition for the heart and soul of Africa the cattiness can be magnified many times over.

Japan is trying to build influence in Africa where China is already a juggernaut. “For China and Japan, the primary reason for involvement in Africa is diplomatic”, says Ted Bauman, economist and senior research analyst at Banyan Hill Publishing.

“Ever since African nations became independent in 1960, foreign powers have courted them for their votes in the United Nations and other international bodies. It is about garnering support for China or Japan in their ongoing disputes over territorial waters in the East and South China Seas. Ever since 39 African countries sided with China in an International Court of Justice case in 2016, Japan has courted the continent aggressively. Japanese diplomacy towards Africa has become more urgent as it tried to counter Chinese Belt and Road Initiative with its own Free and open Indo Pacific Proposals.”

Abe is on a mission to win Africa over by saving it from China’s debt trap. Japan hopes to counter China’s influence by providing grants rather than loans to African countries in need of financing for key infrastructure projects.

At the 7th Tokyo International Conference on African Development (TICAD) in Yokohama last August, Abe said, “in providing assistance to Africa, we have to take note of the debt burden of the recipient country and take care that the debt burden does not become excessive.”

Beijing contested Abe’s claim. In a Global Times editorial, China accused Japan of using aid to gain influence in Africa.”

Masisi had no reason to join the shouting match between Jinping and Abe, leaders of the second and third largest economies in the world after America. With a debt to GDP ratio of 13.4 Botswana is one of the least indebted countries in Africa and has no cat in the fight about debt traps. By picking sides with Jinping in the argument, this was no minor tweak. It signaled a major shift in Botswana’s foreign policy, which traditionally stayed the middle of the road in international disputes, before Khama’s disruptive roof top diplomacy.

The perception that Masisi has decided to pick sides and play favorites is not helped by his uncharacteristic conspicuous absence at TICAD where 42 African leaders supported Abe’s push to reform the UN Security Council by securing permanent membership for Japan, Germany, Brazil and India. They would join China, Britain, France, US and Russia.

The dominant narrative is that TICAD is about Japan taking on China.

Masisi’s post and absence from TICAD however drew no attention. If it sparked angst from Abe’s corner, the name calling and fist shaking played out away from the headlines.

A few days ago I was sitting with Dr Katsuyuki Hirano former Director and now Researcher at Japan External Trade Organization (JETRO). I was trying to sass him out about Masisi, Abe and Jinping’s threesome. I did not sense any bad vibes. In fact he seemed perfectly cool with it. He did not say it in so many words, but my take home was that Abe has absolutely no problem jumping into bed with Sissiboy and Jinping. The sentiment that Masisi does not have to disappoint Jinping to please Abe was echoed by most sources close to the Botswana Japan diplomatic relationship.

Hirano’s actual words were, “we have a healthy relationship with China. We cooperate on a lot of projects, even on international diplomatic missions. In fact, last year China sent the biggest delegation ever to TICAD in Yokohoma.”

Hirano was not just pulling my leg. China which in the past took a muscular approach to relations with Japan has in recent months toned down and launched a curious charm offensive,

In 2013 China unilaterally declared an Air Defence Identification Zone covering East China Sea’s disputed Senkaku/Diaoyo island – a move that retched up tensions with Japan.

Beijing’s belligerence towards Japan has however taken a backseat to diplomacy. In 2018 Jinping welcomed Abe to Beijing. Abe’s visit to China was the first for a Japanese leader in seven years and Jinping’s return visit last year was the first for a Chinese president in more than a decade

Facing escalating geopolitical competition from America China is scrambling to win friends in the region and rethinking its relationship with Japan.

At first glance, China is a more attractive proposition for Botswana. Jinping has deeper pockets. He is a willing big spender. Chinese companies are rushing to invest in Africa while most of their Japanese counterparts are still dithering at the starting line.

Besides, Botswana is a middle income country will not benefit from Abe’s grants.

Masisi has however signaled that Botswana will be investing in a knowledge based economy. The paradox is that sticking out the middle finger at Abe would complicate his plan. The vision of an ICT knowledge based economy must be squared with the country’s digital terrestrial system provided by Japan. The system goes beyond enabling BTV to beam pictures to Batswana and actually has a bearing on the country’s national and food security. Along the way Sissiboy would finally have to confront the awkward choice and trade offs involved in choosing China over Japan.

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