Botswana’s often on-and-off relationship with China is back blossoming again – with new leader Mokgweetsi Masisi set to visit China in September, shortly after foreign Minister Unity Dow returned from Beijing in July.
This new romance ends a decade of frosty relations which at the height of the fall-out saw Beijing extremely angered at the treatment of their people locally and desperately fought off an attempt by Gaborone to host Dalai Lama –the Tibet spiritual leader who is at odds with China for trying to seek independence for his homeland.
Dalai Lama fall out
Former President Ian Khama was irked by the Chinese’s poor workmanship which resulted with failure to deliver critical projects on time and within budget, including Shakawe Senior Secondary school, the expansion of Sir Seretse Khama International Airport terminal, the Fengyue Glass project in Palapye and Morupule B power station among many others.
Khama also did not take kindly to attempts by Beijing to dictate terms of how Botswana should associate with others. Khama retorted that Botswana was not China’s colony at the back of the fall-out over Dalai Lama. While eventually he did not come to Botswana, the country had demonstrated its seriousness of going against what its key trade partner had wished.
China had gone to every extreme in lobbying against Government’s stand including taking a group of journalists and some leaders to tour China and visit Tibet while at the same time engaging widely with traditional leadership and senior Government officials. Dalai Lama pulled out of the Peace/Ubuntu Conference that Botswana hosted only on grounds that he was fatigued.
Director General (DG) of the Department of African Affairs of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, LIN Songtian at the time minced no words when he declared: "There is only One China in the world with Taiwan and Tibet. We can only have a relationship with any country in the world that appreciates the One China policy," he said, warning that anyone of their partners who meddles in issues concerning Tibet will not be considered a friend any more.
Songtian said China has lots 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 China 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 is looking to identify new markets for her resources and diversify the economy.
South China Sea statement
Another low point in the relationship came when Botswana released a statement questioning China’s claim of the South China Sea which is claimed equally by Japan.
China did not take kindly to the statement by Botswana, which caught them by surprise because they were never consulted on the issue prior to the statement. At the height of the tension the Chinese Embassy in Gaborone was temporarily closed and operations suspended, allegedly on instructions from China President Jinping. China demanded a retraction from Botswana, which culminated in a hastily convened meeting between Embassy officials and the Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Relations Pelonomi Venson-Moitoi.
Soon thereafter Venson-Moitoi promptly convened a media briefing, but did not apologise to China reiterating that Botswana enjoys freedom to take a position on any matter of international concern. China has since declared null and void, and of no binding force an award by the Arbitral Tribunal on July 12, 2016 over the South China Sea dispute.
Zhuqiang said China has support over their claim from more than 60 countries of which half are from Africa. Asked if Botswana is one of the African countries that have openly supported them he answered in the negative, but was quick to add that they hope Gaborone will support them.
Duma Boko blasts Govt
Leader of Opposition Duma Boko condemned the Government for attacking China over its territorial claims to the South China Sea, referring to the move as “one of its many instances of thoughtless enthusiasm”. “We have it on good authority that this is yet another act by the over-zealous and immature Office of the President, which continues to govern and operate unbridled emotion and astonishing lack of oversight. We pray and hope that this callous mismanagement of our foreign policy does not plunge our country into an abyss from which we may not be able to extricate ourselves,” Boko said, noting that there were proper diplomatic channels that Botswana should have used to engage on this matter.
Fast Forward to 2018
It will appear even as Vice President, Masisi was not in support of the stand-off against China. The red carpet has been rolled out to the Chinese, with the ruling party – Botswana Democratic Party – having recently hosted the China Communist Party delegates in Gaborone; as clear demonstration of how serious they have moved to embrace them. BDP Secretary General Mpho Balopi even declared how similar the two parties were.
Just this past week the Botswana-China Business Forum took place as a way of luring Chinese investors into the country. Currently, according to BITC, there are 23 Chinese companies in the manufacturing sector with an annual turnover of P399m. these have employed 937 people and have employed a cumulative capital of P514m.
Botswana Investment and Trade Centre (BITC) CEO Keletsositse Olebile has urged China to take advantage of the preferential market access to more than 293 million people in SADC. Botswana offers such investors a competitive tax framework of 15 percent for manufacturing companies, 22 percent for corporate and a 5-10 percent for those choosing to invest in the Selebi-Phikwe region.
Masisi’s trip to China will be the first by a Botswana President in over 10 years, strongly signals that the romance between the two countries is flourishing once more. Masisi was expected to meet Xi Jinping among others in BRICS Summit in Johannesburg this week.