Implications of the Dalai Lama visit on Botswana-China relations

By Retlaw Matorwa

Prior to the 2010 World Cup, efforts to host the Da Lai Lama on South African soil threatened Beijing and Pretoria relations.

Acceding to pressure from Beijing, Pretoria denied the Dalai Lama the rite of passage into South Africa. In a similar attempt, Mind and Dialogue, a non-governmental organisation based in Gaborone has revealed plans to host the Dalai Lama at a conference to be held this August in Botswana.

Given the position of China on the Dalai Lama and Tibet, will Gaborone risk its bilateral relations with Beijing over the Dalai Lama?  Of what significance will the Da Lai Lama visit be on Africa-China relations should Botswana grant the Da Lai Lama rite of passage into the country?

Finally, does Africa have a say in international politics and relations. In other words is Africa able to make a stand objectively without interference from other powers?

Botswana and China have a long history of diplomatic relations dating back from January 1975.  Both countries share common views and support each other on major international issues. The two countries have enjoyed progressive bilateral trade relations, political, social exchanges and cooperation.

Botswana-China bilateral trade rose from zero thirty years ago to US$52.4m in 2004, to US$69m in 2006 and US$ 149m in 2007. According to Beijing, Botswana enjoys a stable political environment and amicable relations with its neighbouring countries. Above all, products from Botswana enjoy preferential free access to the whole of the Southern African market (; 18 April 2006).

Over 20 Chinese companies have been involved in infrastructure development in Botswana mainly working on large infrastructure projects. These include schools, hospitals, airports, dams, stadiums and “mega projects” such as the famous Morupule B power station. China has provided US$129 million in development finance to Botswana since the Africa China co-operation forum of 2010. Botswana also donated P1 million to aid victims of the 2008 Sichuan earthquake (Memories and blessings of China Botswana relations; 2010).

Howeverr, this relationship is not without its setbacks. Recently, there has been a change of attitude towards Chinese presence in Botswana. President Ian Khama raised concerns regarding the operations of Chinese companies and their poor performance on government contracts.

Khama also complained over massive Chinese migration taking jobs from local people (Kotch 2013, p.2) resulting in Botswana tightening its visa application procedure for Asians.

Since then, there has been anecdotal evidence from the Chinese community that it has become much more difficult to obtain visas for Botswana since 2013 (Youngman, Strengthening Africa China relations, p.8). Signaling his government’s frustration and dissatisfaction with some aspects of relations with China, President Khama said “….there is no need in having a super power invest in a country, if such investment do not yield any good.” (Kotch 2013, p.2).

On the international scene, Botswana stood as an equal and not a subject of the Chinese. In the United Nations Security Council, Botswana formally and openly condemned China’s veto on the Syrian conflict in 2012. In 2016, Botswana angered China when she released a press statement insinuating that China could be meddling in the disputes over the islands of South China Sea. Referring to the South China Sea islands conflict, Botswana Foreign Affairs ministry was quoted saying “No country, no matter how big its economy or military, should impose its power over others to make claims, which may escalates tensions that could result in conflicts (the Patriot on Sunday, 23 February 2016).”

She stuck her guns at the African Union distancing herself from the unanimous decision of member states to withdraw their participation at the International Criminal Court (ICC). The above scenarios point to Botswana’s decision-making in international politics as premised on principles of right and wrong not patronage.

With regards to the Dalai Lama visit, Botswana may easily and without hesitation grant His Holiness rite of passage into the country. She may decide this route as a show of strength and her ability to make decisions as an independent sovereign state as exhibited by her resolutions at Africa and international level.

Gaborone may show her unwillingness to be bullied by so called “powers” as was in the case of Pretoria in 2010. This time around Beijing is in a catch 22 situation.

Considering the benefits accruing to China from its relationship with Botswana and its future objectives in the region, Beijing may be forced to restrain any attempt of an iron-hand on Gaborone and let the Dalai Lama be.

Botswana is the gateway for Chinese products into Southern African market. Apart from her political stability, she provides easy access to the whole of Southern African market as a result of her strategic trade alliances with neighbouring countries in the region. On the premise, China needs Botswana, a stable base to expand her influence in the region.

Beijing may express its displeasure but it may not yield to significant policy shifts towards Gaborone. If it attempts a policy shift, such change in policy may not have as much impact on Botswana. However, what would be of interest to observe is China’s reaction should Botswana go ahead and allow the Dalai Lama in their country? What precedent would China set, in terms of the diplomatic tools it may be willing to use once defied?

Whichever tools it may decide to use will determine whether they indeed treat Africans as equal or subjects? It remains to be seen, if China will use an iron fist dressed in a velvet glove or the iron fist undressed

Africa, by its very nature and historical context, must have been on the fore-front siding with the oppressed masses of the world, rebutting all forms of oppression and colonialism. By now, we should have been able to choose our friends and foe independently as sovereign states.

For Africa to do so, it must begin by addressing her economic sovereignty removing her economies from the shackles and vices of neo-colonialism.

Decisions on friendship and foe need not be influenced by her belly or allegiances but ideological or moral grounds.

To achieve her respect, Africa must urgently address strengthening its economies through regional economic communities (REC’s), increase intra-regional trade, value addition of raw materials, industrialization, research, optimum resource utilization and prioritization.

Above all, enhance her levels of democracy, accountability, resource utilization and prioritisation.

July 2017
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