Hostilities escalate over Dalai lama Visit

SHARE   |   Wednesday, 19 July 2017   |   By Ditiro Motlhabane 
Hostilities escalate over Dalai lama Visit

Diplomatic tension between Botswana and China deteriorated to an all-time low last week when the latter openly warned that any country that hosts exiled Tibetan spiritual leader and secessionist -the Dalai Lama- will be considered an enemy, just days after minister Edwin Batshu confirmed issuance of a VISA for the visit. Ambassador to the People's Republic of China, Bruce Palai, had to endure a baptism of fire just four days in his new office in Beijing – where he has been redeployed from Geneva – when he was told in no uncertain terms last Wednesday that the host is not amused by Botswana frolicking with the Dalai Lama. Having enjoyed relative comfort for the past six years as Botswana's Permanent Representative to the United Nations (UN) in Geneva, where he has been replaced by former Attorney General Dr Athalia Molokomme, the diplomatic fallout between China and Botswana presents a litmus test for Palai's character and resolve to cool tempers, mediate strained relations, broker peace and prevent disasterous outcomes. He has his job cut out. An unsuspecting Palai had been lured to the magnificent St Regis Hotel in downtown Beijing on Wednesday evening to meet a group of Batswana visiting China, where he was ambushed by Director General (DG) of the Department of African Affairs of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, LIN Songtian leading an entourage of Chinese government officials. Although the event was a dinner organised for a delegation of journalists and academics from Botswana with the DG, Songtian did not mince words telling Palai and all that his country is unhappy that Botswana Government is preparing to host the Dalai Lama. "There is only One China in the world with Taiwan and Tibet. We can only have a relationship with any country in the world who appreciate the One China policy," he warned. 

The tough talking Songtian, who will report for work in Johannesburg, South Africa in two weeks as the new Ambassador of China, warned that anyone of their partners who meddles in issues concerning Tibet will not be considered a friend any more. He challenged Botswana government and the University of Botswana to clarify their position on the planned August 17-19 visit to Gaborone by the Dalai Lama. Songtian called on (Botswana) Parliament to ask government what relationship they want with China and Tibet people regarding the Dalai Lama. "By entertaining the Dalai Lama visit Botswana is stabbing China in the back. We would highly appreciate if Parliament and UB speak out on the issue. You have the right to choose to open or to close your borders to anybody. We don't want to see this (collapse of bilateral relations) happen because we want to protect the relationship between the two countries," he said.  Describing the relationship as "very quiet", Songtian said China has a lot of worries about Botswana/ China relations currently, which have been lagging behind in the last seven years. He said Botswana is losing out when the rest of Africa is enjoying immense benefits from China. For example, in the last three years Chia spent US$100 billion on developments in infrastructure, health, education, skills development/ human resource development and peace keeping in Africa but Botswana was excluded. Bilateral trade between the two currently stands at $276 million/ year, he said. Songtian called on Botswana to exploit opportunities availed by the large market, resources, skills and expertise in the more developed China. He said instead of immigration blocking Chinese investors Botswana should open up to accommodate more experts and investors to share skills with the locals. He said China being the 2nd largest importer of diamonds, beef products and highly advanced tourism sector should naturally be a strategic partner for Botswana who are looking to identify new markets for her resources and diversify the economy. "Everything you produce, bring it to China we will use it. Come and market yourself here. Our market is huge and we are ready". He however warned that they approach investment cautiously and conduct due diligence on projects they support financially to avoid losses due to unsustainability. "We may be rich but we are not foolish," he said.  

Clearly unsettled by the stern warning from Songtian, Palai was forced to convene an impromptu media briefing with the Botswana delegation and painfully explained the country's position on the matter. Fidgeting in discomfort, Palai conceded that there is nothing he can do to change the current position of government and that such intervention will have to come from the highest office in the land, OP. Asked what will become of the country should China cut diplomatic relations with Botswana due to the Dalai Lama visit, Palai said, rather dejectedly; "There is nothing we can do. We will just have to respect their decision". This week Botswana made contradictory statements indicating in one that they have nothing to do with Lama’s visit only to somersault a day to say it will extend normal courtesies for visiting dignitaries to the Dalai Lama, even pointing to the possibility of the latter meeting with President Ian Khama. "The Government of the Republic of Botswana wishes to inform, pertaining to the above subject matter, that it will be extending the normal courtesies for visiting dignitaries, for which the Chief of Protocol is responsible. Furthermore, His Excellency will meet the Dalai Lama when he is in Botswana," the statement reads. Deputy Permanent Secretary for Government Communications, Office of the President, Dr Jeff Ramsay, had said the Government of Botswana has no official involvement in the three-day conference organised by Mind and Life Institute titled “Botho/Ubuntu: A Dialogue with the Dalai Lama Spirituality, Science and Humanity”, scheduled for 17-19 August 2017. Information released by the organisers of the conference indicates that Khama will deliver the opening address at the event, but Ramsay said the president shall not be participating in the said conference in any other way. "Contrary to speculation in some quarters, the Government of Botswana will not be accommodating or otherwise extending official hospitality to the 14th Dalai Lama, should he visit our country," he said. 

The Dalai Lama

Born Lhamo Thondup, otherwise known as Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama was made leader of the Tibetan Buddhists at age 15 in 1950, the same year China occupied Tibet. Sources indicate that as a young boy the Dalai Lama was kept in Beijing for seven years. After a failed coup against Chinese rule, he fled Tibet in 1959 for exile in India; from where he has been working as the leader of the exiled Tibetan government until his retirement in 2011. Internationally, the Dalai Lama is revered by Tibetans and global leaders as a spiritual leader and cultural icon. A 1989 Nobel peace prize laureate, he has met with leaders from all walks of life, including Hollywood stars and Heads of State like Nelson Mandela, Angela Merkel and Barack Obama. But the Chinese government views him as a troublemaker; a "wolf in monk's clothing." Beijing has repeatedly condemned his meetings with global leaders as politically motivated crusades to divide China by advocating for self-rule in Tibet. They view any extension of VIP treatment to the Dalai Lama as a challenge to China's sovereignty and claim over Tibet. In 2014, South Africa bowed to pressure from China and denied him a visa to attend a summit of Nobel peace laureates. The summit was later cancelled and China thanked South Africa for “doing the right thing.” 

Tibet at a glance

An unusually heavy presence of military arsenal welcomes any visitor landing at Lhasa Gongga airport, the main city of Tibet. Fighter jets, helicopters and an assortment of military power line the airport in a clear show of aggression, possibly to intimidate would-be trangressors. It is very clear that China jealously guard Tibet as part of its territory and is not about to relent in defending its sovereignty and integrity. Tibet Autonomous Region is one of China's five ethnic autonomous regions at the provincial level. Due to its high average altitude of 40 000+ absl, Tibet is often called the roof of the world. It has a population of 3.305 million, mainly Tibetan ethnic group. Lhasa is the political, economic, cultural and transport centre for Tibet. It is home to the Potala Palace, a World Cultural Heritage Site, which is the largest and most intact ancient castle-style complex in Tibet. Not far from it is yet another UNESCO site, the Jokhang Temple, a holy place for pilgrims to pay their respect to Buddha. There is no doubt Tibet is in everybody's mind. Provisional leaders in Tibet steer clear of commenting on the subject, referring any enquiry to the central government in Beijing where Songtian warns that the issue "touches our bottom-line. If you break the foundation that holds us together there will be no interest or relationship". Dismissing the Dalai Lama, Songtian says although he calls himself a spiritual and religious leader, the Buddhist is a political activist and a secessionist seeking the establishment of Greater Tibet as a breakaway from mainland China. He adds that Tibet was already a liberated state when the Dalai Lama escaped to India in 1959, where the CIA is paying for his upkeep and survival to continue causing trouble in China. On the Dalai Lama's recent travel to places in US, London, Paris and Germany Songtian said those countries have since apologised for the oversight after China gave them a stern warning and threatened to cut trade relations. According to Songtian, China's priority in Tibet is sovereignty and development. Throughout the province major construction projects are mushrooming all over the place with new roads, railways and other infrastructure. On the south-eastern side of Tibet lies the small town of Nyingchi from which one can reach the just completed US$3.8 billion Lulang International Tourist town, a perfect blend of rural culture and the best modern technology. 

How it started

Morupule B Power Station

What started off as a contractual dispute over a transaction between China National Electric Equipment Corporation and Shenyang Blower Works Electro Mechanic Import and Export Co. (CNEEC/ SBW Consortium) and Botswana Government has now mothballed into a diplomatic fallout threatening bilateral relations between the two countries. The Chinese contractor, engaged for the construction of the 600MW Morupule B Power Station to mitigate acute power shortages in the country at a cost of US$1 billion in 2008, failed to deliver on the project. All the four units failed and costs escalated to around US$4 billion on completion! As the country plunged further into darkness occasioned by frequent disruptions to power supply Government blamed CNEEC who in turn accused the designers of the power plant, the Germans. Avoiding direct mention of the project and the contractor Songtian said failure to deliver the power plant, which his government has already reprimanded the company for, should not be allowed to destroy bilateral relations that date back to 1975. "We intervened and ordered the company to correct their mistakes in Botswana and fix the problems (with the power plant). The power station was put back in operation within one year. Mutual trust between Botswana and China is very important," said Songtian, adding that the new Ambassador to Botswana has been given clear instructions to mend the relationship. In addition to failure at Morupule B Botswana Government suffered huge cost overruns and losses in projects done by Chinese contractors including Fengyue Glass project in Palapye, Sir Seretse Khama International Airport terminal expansion and some state buildings. 

South China Sea debacle

Last year, at a time when a high level delegation of United States of America Congressmen was in the country, Botswana issued a statement criticising China over its claim for territoriality over the South China Sea islands. Earlier, US insisted on freedom of navigation and supported countries in Southeast Asia who are affected by China’s territorial claims and land reclamation. The US had in the fall of 2015, signalled plans to challenge China’s assertion of sovereignty over disputed territory by flying military aircrafts and deploying ships near some of the islands. South China Sea territorial disputes involve both island and maritime claims among several sovereign states within the region among them Brunei, the People's Republic of China, Taiwan, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam. Songtian says Botswana's comment about developments in South China Sea was surprising, unfortunate and shook the foundation of their bilateral relations. "Countries should avoid copying positions taken by the West against China," he said.  

Dalai Lama visit

In what China views as continued provocation, Botswana has despite having sufficient information about the controversy surrounding the Dalai Lama issued him a visa to visit the country. This decision has pitted Botswana- a small economy of just over 2 million people and a small GDP against the Asian Tiger, the world's biggest economy by per capita earnings with a population of 1.4 billion. 


Losses and gains

• Already, the strained diplomatic relations have claimed some casualties with further negative implications beginning to take effect.  China's Ambassador to Botswana, who handled the South China Sea debacle in Gaborone Zheng Zhuqiang has been removed from office and replaced. On the other hand, China has also forced Botswana to reshuffle Ambassadors at the Beijing mission replacing Sasara George with Palai in May 2017, sources said. At the height of the tension over South China Sea, the Chinese Embassy in Gaborone was closed down and stopped processing visa applications from Botswana. 


• In an effort to stem Chinese influx into the country, Botswana has imposed strict requirements for visa applications. Numerous Chinese businessmen/ investors have either been deported back to their country and declared prohibited immigrants or outright denied visas to come to Botswana. This has sparked an outcry by China (Ambassador XXX) that Botswana is closing out her borders to investors from the far east. China has also taken cue and now imposes strict visa requirements

• Botswana has since the last Forum on China-Africa Relations (FOCAC) in Johannesburg South Africa ignored invitation to apply for a share of the US$ 60 billion availed to African countries by the Government of China. 


• China is the second biggest consumer/ importer of diamonds while Botswana's economy is solely dependent on diamond exports.  

• China's policy of tourism has recently changed to outward looking, in the process contributing an estimated US$260 billion to the US economy. Botswana is looking to develop the tourism sector which has shown potential for economic diversification


• Scholarships for public servants and other Batswana to further their studies in different fields in China at the expense of the Chinese Government

• The Confucious China studies at the University of Botswana 


• Chinese Doctors performing free operations on local patients

• Cultural exchange programmes