Speaking at a reception hosted at the Chinese Embassy almost a decade ago, then foreign affairs minister, Phandu Skelemani, recalled how as a young lawyer working for the Attorney General Chamber in 1975, he did the legal paperwork for the transfer of the chancery to the government of China. Given the occasion, there was a lot that the lawyer-turned-politician could have said but didn’t.
Up until that point, Botswana had diplomatic relations with Taiwan, a breakaway territory which China still lays claim to. China’s condition for establishing diplomatic relations with Botswana was that it should stop such relations with Taiwan. At this point, the president was Sir Seretse Khama and he had to be pragmatic in how he handled international affairs of then dirt-poor Botswana which had come into being only nine years ago. The country was in desperate need of international development partners and stood to benefit more China than Taiwan.
In establishing diplomatic relations with China, Sir Seretse was making explicit acknowledgement of the One-China Policy, a rigid condition that China insists on for bilateral relations. This policy also encompasses Tibet – which China also lays claim to. Khama’s successor, Sir Ketumile Masire, maintained relations with China under the same conditions and it was under him that trade relations between the two countries reached a new level. The harbingers were Chinese artisans who laid a railway track at Rakhuna in 1987 and what began as a trickle soon became a deluge as Chinese businesspeople discovered Botswana. It was around that time that Masire reportedly expressed pained wonderment that the characteristically imitative Batswana were not copying the industry of the Chinese.
Nobody could have known but as Festus Mogae’s Vice President, General Ian Khama (Seretse Khama’s son) would have chafed about the Sino-Botswana relations. Oddly though, it was halfway through his presidency that Khama began playing hard ball with the Chinese. In an interview with a South African newspaper, Khama lamented an unpleasant experience with Chinese contractors and said that in future, the government would exercise more discretion in whom it does construction business with. Taking cue from his words, the ruling Botswana Democratic Party opened up a conversation on this topic and the comment stream, as that of a subsequent BDP National Council, generally became negative. Khama’s statement would prompt Bing Liu, the chairperson of the Botswana Chinese General Chamber of Commerce to ask rhetorically during an interview with Sunday Standard: “Does he mean that other guys can afford to mess up?”
Khama ratcheted up this conflict in 2017 when he invited the Dalai Lama to visit Botswana and headline an event hosted by a United States organisation called Mind & Life Institute. This marked historic and dramatic deviation from the One-China Policy that Botswana had observed for 42 years. China protested bitterly and at one point closed its embassy in Gaborone for a day. But Khama wouldn’t be swayed. Ahead of the event, Mind & Life Institute revealed that Khama himself would give the opening address. Khama was deviating from another foreign policy norm that was put in place by his father. For the most practical of reasons, Botswana never officially aligned itself with liberation movements like the African National Congress and the Pan African Congress because it was economically dependent on apartheid South Africa. For that reason, Sir Seretse’s official policy was that its territory couldn’t be used to launch attacks on South Africa. By hosting a US organisation and a Tibetan separatist leader, Khama was allowing Botswana to be used as a launching pad in an attack against a foreign state.
The saga ended with the Dalai Lama cancelling his trip to Botswana but Khama (who is notoriously vindictive) was obviously still raring for another fight. That opportunity presented itself last week when Khama bulldozed his way to India where the Dalai Lama is based. He stopping over in South Africa to tell the most incredulous falsehoods during an interview with an SABC TV journalist. It is unclear what China will do next but it is unlikely that it will economically punish Botswana as it has with all other countries whose top leaders met with the Dalai Lama. Botswana would definitely have suffered grave consequences if Khama was still in office. Khama’s successor, President Mokgweetsi Masisi, has been very keen to restore good relations with China and ahead of last year’s Sino-Africa Summit, was a special guest of Premier Xi Jinping. One other dimension is that there may be little economic damage China can do to Botswana. According to a statistical brief from the African Development Bank, Botswana is China’s least important trading partner in Africa. In 2016, a year before the Dalai Lama saga, Botswana exports to China totalled a mere 1 percent.
Khama’s standoff with China is stupefying given that he personally benefitted from the bilateral relations that his father started in 1975. Two years later, Botswana formed the Botswana Defence Force, which Khama became Deputy Commander of at the rank of Brigadier. In his autobiography, BDF’s founding commander and former Vice President under Khama, Lieutenant General Mompati Merafhe, writes that it was the Chinese (not the Americans or the British) who helped arm the new army. Procurement of armaments from China was crucial to the BDF becoming any kind of army to reckon with as well as to the induction of its members into the soldiering profession. That is the context in which the Chinese (not the British who trained him at Sandhurst) played a crucial role in making Khama a soldier.
There is also Khama’s philanthropy which would not have happened with Chinese help because the lightweight blankets that he started donating in 1998 when he was Vice President, are made in China. A prose-comedy column in last week’s edition of Botswana Guardian notes the irony of Khama feuding with China when his whole “blanket philanthropy” is based on a Chinese product. As ironic is Khama ganging up with a US organisation against a country that helped his army career when the US itself didn’t want to that.