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What will be the Dalai Lama effect on Botswana?

Dalai Lama
The Dalai Lama will visit Botswana next month and meet with President Ian Khama, in a trip that has irked China. The Tibetan spiritual leader, who lives in exile in India, is due to make a public address at the three-day “Mind and Life Dialogue” conference in the Botswana capital Gaborone on August 19.

It has been reported that Chinese Embassy officials in Botswana have been “scrambling to stop Botswana from opening its doors to the Dalai Lama.” Beijing has indicated that allowing the Dalai Lama to visit Botswana would set back relations between the two countries. This has raised concerns that Botswana will suffer economic repercussion at the hands of China, and raises questions of whether the Dalai Lama is worth all the trouble we will encounter with China. The other question is what is Botswana’s interest in hosting Dalai Lama, over the possible economic repercussions.

To answer, I will address the issue from a national interest perspective. I will also highlight some cases of countries that have been ‘punished’ by China over Dalai Lama, and conclude that Beijing may be forced to restrain any attempt of an iron-hand on Gaborone. The national interest, often referred to by the French expression raison d’État (“reason of State”), is a country’s goals and ambitions whether economic, military, or cultural. National interests are the vital interests of a state of which survival is the first and foremost interest. 

For a country like Botswana, without a codified foreign policy it becomes difficult to separate the interests of the nation and its leader. In an ideal world, a nation’s foreign policies should be based on its national interests, not on the personal whims or prejudices of whoever happens to be its leader at the time. Leaders of governments who confuse their own personal viewpoints with those of their countries’ national interests can cause unwelcome and even dangerous consequences for their fellow countrymen.

As it is, Dalai Lama is coming to Botswana, and to what benefit? Given, there are possible economic implications which will threaten the economic stability of the sovereignty we are claiming, one may posit that our interest lie not with the Dalai Lama but rather with a long-standing trade partner and ally, China. However, a state’s independence and territorial integrity come above all other interests, as is being demonstrated by Botswana now. If the state disappears, then no other interest remains.

The supreme duty of the state is, therefore, to maintain itself. China’s manner of dealing with governments whose leaders meet the Dalai Lama showcases its strategy of projecting hard power, even at the risk of being seen to be overreacting. At times, China marshals its commercial clout too to “punish” countries that receive the Dalai Lama, with some getting their exports to China contract in the two years following such meetings. China has previously lodged formal protests with the US administration and accused the US of interfering in China’s internal affairs and damaging bilateral relations, following meetings with various leaders including Barack Obama, John McCain

and Nancy Pelosi. With Britain, all ministerial contact was suspended between China and Britain after Mr. Cameron and Nick Clegg met the Dalai Lama in 2012.

A week after the November 2016 visit, China imposed fees on commodity imports from Mongolia, charging additional transit costs on goods passing through a border crossing into China’s northern region of Inner Mongolia. In May 2017, the Dalai Lama visited Arunachal Pradesh, a disputed area between China and India. China promptly that India will be punished for allowing the region, claimed by China.

The promised reprisal is unveiling slowly. The consequence depends on the level of importance of the foreign dignitary who meets the Dalai Lama: if the dignitary is more important, the consequence is more pronounced, and will usually wear off after two years. It is not easy to determine what action Beijing will likely take against Botswana as there is no precedence in Africa. Botswana will be Dalai Lama’s first African destination. Whatever action, it is unlikely to be economic.

China cooperates with Botswana through various channels, which include; aid, investment, trade in goods and services, and education. Among these forms of cooperation, the trade channel is the main driver of the bilateral relationship between the two nations. China’s fast-growing demand for raw materials has made it one of the biggest investors in Africa and its largest trade partner. Chinese state-owned companies have been awarded contracts worth billions of pula to build roads, dams, power stations and airports in Botswana. In 2015, Botswana imported goods worth P1.1 billion and exported goods worth P380 million. 

That Botswana imports more from China than it exports to it is evidence that Botswana is winning at trade – for imports are the very purpose of trade. As Adam Smith in Wealth of Nations puts it; “Consumption is the sole end and purpose of all production; and the interest of the producer ought to be to attended to, only so far as it may be necessary for promoting that of the consumer.

The maxim is so perfectly self-evident, that it would be absurd to attempt to prove it. But in the mercantile system, the interest of the consumer is almost constantly sacrificed to that of the producer; and it seems to consider production, and not consumption, as the ultimate end and object of all industry and commerce.”Considering the benefits accruing to China from its relationship with Botswana and its future objectives in the region, Beijing will be forced to restrain any attempt of an iron-hand on Gaborone. I therefore posit that threats of economic sanctions are exaggerated. 

*Nchidzi Smarts is a commentator and researcher specialising in the politics, international relations, human rights and economics of Africa.

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