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Khama should undertake state visit to China – study

A recent research study on China/Botswana relations has advised that President Lt. Gen. Seretse Khama Ian Khama should undertake an official state visit to the Peoples Republic of China to enhance diplomatic relations, which already are in deteriorating state.  

According to the study titled: “A study on perspectives on how to enhance Botswana – China relations” authored by renowned ex-University of Botswana (UB) Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Academic Affairs) Professor Frank Youngman an official visit between the two countries is crucial to mend relations and should take place. “Frequent high-level visits of politicians and government officials between Botswana and China should be undertaken, with priority given to a state visit by the President of Botswana to China,” the research study posits.

The research points out that the Chinese are trying hard to get President Khama to visit China. He is the only President of Botswana who has not visited whilst in office. He seems to be not favourably disposed towards China. The study which was released on March 2017 has been duly approved by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation of the Government of Botswana.

Where the loathsome relationship started

According to the study, the nature of Botswana-China relations has become much more complex since 2000, under the former President Festus Mogae. The high point in terms of the political/diplomatic dimension came with the then President Mogae’s state visit to China in November 2006 to attend the Forum on China Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) Beijing Summit. Although the study indicates that he made clear at the time that he valued the relationship highly, including its economic benefits, he subsequently noted that there were problems in the relationship but these were outweighed by its advantages.

“On our part in Botswana, we are grateful to China for the various projects completed under our joint efforts… This doesn’t mean that there haven’t been bumps in the road; there have been… We have issues to sort out and in that regard we encourage the Chinese to heed our aspirations to hire more of our local workers, to help us further with capacity building, to not consider our countries as dumping grounds, and not to overrun our countries with Chinese businesses…”

The study highlights that problems in the relationship have been primarily in the economic dimension, though Botswana has had differences on a number of diplomatic issues, such as China’s veto in the United Nations (UN) Security Council of a resolution on Syria in July 2012. The research study observes categorically that: “despite active interventions by the Chinese Embassy (including diplomatic activity, media coverage, meetings with Chinese companies, donations to local schools and charities, cultural events and so forth), there is public evidence that the Government’s attitude towards China has deteriorated in recent years.”

It says in early 2013, President Khama gave a newspaper interview in which he was very negative about China. “In the interview the Head of State expressed dissatisfaction with three aspects of relations with China, namely: the poor quality of work by Chinese construction companies on major Government projects; the excessive level of Chinese migration into the country; the fact that Chinese were undertaking economic activities and jobs that could be done by Batswana,” the study states.

The research study states that when asked if other African presidents had similar views Khama responded: ‘they probably won’t say it publicly, but when I’ve spoken to others they’ve expressed frustrations as well,’ he said. ‘People feel that China is now the second-biggest economy in the world. You say things like that, do you really want to upset such a huge power? But there’s no point in having a huge power investing in a country if those investments at the end of the day don’t do you any good,’ Khama reportedly said.  

The majority of respondents in the study cited the difficulties that have arisen since 2010 because of high profile problems with Chinese construction companies undertaking major Government of Botswana projects, in particular the Francistown Stadium, the Shakawe Senior Secondary School, the Sir Seretse Khama International (SSKI) Airport and the Morupule B power plant. These projects have had problems of quality, delays and cost over-runs, which in some cases have led to the termination of contracts. Although the problem is essentially economic, the failed constructions projects have had significant political ramifications, especially affecting views within the ruling Botswana Democratic Party (BDP), which did comparatively poorly in the 2014 elections.

Subsequently, in July 2013, in terms of the study, the Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation Phandu Skelemani spoke critically at a reception for the new Chinese Ambassador and warned him to ensure better behaviour by the Chinese community.
“While Government ministers continue to make positive formal statements on the bilateral relations, such as the Minister of Health on Chinese medical assistance, negative views persist among significant state actors about the extent of Chinese small businesses in the retail sector and about the performance of Chinese construction companies on major government projects,” the findings as per the study maintained.

The study mentions a newspaper report of remarks attributed to the Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation on July 1, 2015 after returning from a visit to China, including a meeting with her counterpart: Dr Venson-Moitoi said in an interview that government had “drastically reduced”’ retail licenses to Chinese nationals, the research continues. Moitoi is claimed to have said: “retail is a preserve for Batswana and it is an area where we believe that Batswana should have a higher percentage because we are seeking jobs and employment for Batswana,” she said… “We need a spell of cooling in our relations because over the last couple of years, we have had a few projects that failed and thought it was necessary that we spoke at a higher level with Chinese government to express our feelings and ensure that we remove misunderstandings.”

“I had to meet him to inform him that our country suffered because of Chinese companies which did not invest in the country, but only came on contracts to make money and go out after delivering the jobs,” she said. In response, the research study highlights that the Chinese Embassy then gave a press briefing on July 7, 2015 in which, according to newspaper reports, it made public its frustrations with visa and work permit problems, sudden deportations, the insecurity felt by Chinese investors, and the tendency within Botswana to regard all Chinese construction companies as problematic.


Subsequently, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation found it necessary to make a press release on July 8, 2015 stating that “relations between the two countries remain excellent and mutually beneficial.” Nevertheless, the study says that a public impression had been created of significant tension in the bilateral relations. This tension it says was exacerbated in February 2016 when the Government of Botswana through the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Relations issued a press release criticising approach to its territorial claim to islands in the South China Sea.


“This was regarded by China as a public attack on its core national interests and it reacted with extreme displeasure that the press release was inaccurate and that diplomatic channels had not been followed. Botswana’s Ambassador in Beijing was called in to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and admonished. Undoubtedly, this diplomatic dispute was the lowest point reached in state-to-state relations since diplomatic relations were established in 1975 and it impacted very negatively on political/diplomatic trust between the two nations.”
According to the research study, the dispute reflects the wider trends in Botswana’s foreign policy that have emerged during the presidency of Ian Khama, whose personalised and idiosyncratic approach has led to a number of differences with the policies and behaviours of his predecessors.

How Botswana can strengthen relations with China

The question that arises then is what practical measures can be taken by both sides to enhance Botswana-China relations on a continuing basis. This is the problem that the research study addressed. Apart from suggesting that Khama embarks on an official visit to China, the study says the Government of Botswana should develop a coherent and explicit strategy towards its bilateral relations with China. In terms of the economic relations the study points out that the two governments (of Botswana and China) should resolve expeditiously all outstanding issues related to the problems of the Morupule B power plant.

“The Government of Botswana should ensure that existing policies on citizen reservation in the retail sector are enforced and that the two governments should concentrate on restructuring economic relations to focus on investment from China, especially in the manufacturing sector.” Chinese companies, the study says, should undertake skills training, engage in technology transfer, employ more locals (including in senior positions), carry out corporate social responsibility programmes, and integrate with local business organisations.

The findings show that economic issues were viewed as fundamental, whilst development assistance and formal political/diplomatic exchanges constitute important components of the state-to-state relationship. The respondents on both sides (Chinese and Batswana) and across occupational groups agreed that the relationship between Botswana and China is important and they suggested a number of practical measures that could be taken to improve it. “Chinese companies should employ public relations experts and the Chinese Embassy should establish a strong Public Relations Unit,” the study recommends.

According to the study, the Government of Botswana should ensure there is expertise on China within relevant ministry departments and parastatals, and that within the Botswana Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation, a specialised cluster should be formed of staff with in-depth knowledge of China and proficiency in the Chinese language. In addition: “the University of Botswana B.A. in Chinese Studies should be enhanced so that its graduates can provide the capacity that the Government needs.”

The research further states that a think-tank on China should be developed at the University of Botswana to undertake applied research and the Chinese Government should continue to sponsor Botswana media practitioners for training and study visits in China.
It was also said that the Government of Botswana and the Chinese Embassy should work together urgently to resolve all immigration issues affecting Chinese citizens. However, the relationship between the two countries will be put to test once more next month when the religious cum political separatist Dalai Lama visits Botswana for the first time, against China’s will.

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