Botswana should not bow to Chinese pressure over Dalai Lama

The Dalai Lama
The Dalai Lama

The Dalai Lama is expected to visit Botswana in August and meet with President Seretse Khama Ian Khama, a move that is likely to anger China.

Beijing views the Dalai Lama, who lives in exile in India, as a dangerous separationist campaigning for Tibetan independence and consistently condemns foreign leaders who meet with him. The Dalai Lama, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989, says he seeks greater rights, including religious freedom, and true autonomy for Tibetans.

Visits by the Dalai Lama to foreign countries annoy China. It often retaliates by stopping high level meetings, taking economic steps, like last year when it imposed new border fees following a visit by the Dalai Lama to Mongolia. Botswana’s neighbour, South Africa has denied a visa to the Buddhist monk three times since 2009 in what observers say shows the extent of Beijing’s influence over Pretoria.

China has already warned Botswana against hosting the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader, saying it hoped Botswana could make the “correct” decision about the trip. There is fear that China could sanction Botswana. 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. As the markets of the United States of America, Europe and Japan were floundering in the wake of the global recession, the Chinese market became the most penetrable market for Botswana’s diamond industry. All things considered, China has the ability to hit Botswana hard where it hurts the most.

So this begs the question, “is the Dalai Lama worth the risk?” To answer, I do not find anything wrong with Botswana allowing the Dalai Lama to visit, even with the threats from China. Botswana should not go back on hosting the Dalai Lama, as a show of strength and its ability to make decisions as an independent sovereign state. Firstly, Dalai Lama is not a head of State. He refers to himself as “semi-retired” from running the Tibetan government in exile, which now has an elected Parliament and Prime Minister. Further, his role as a religious and political leader – a complex role itself – is widely misunderstood. The Dalai Lama was once head of the Tibetan government but was never a “god king,” even in the old days before the invasion of China. Nor is the Dalai Lama the “Buddhist pope”. He has institutional authority only within Tibetan Buddhism, not all of Buddhism, and that authority is not absolute.

Secondly, Botswana supports the One China policy, and has not articulated support for Tibetan independence. The One China policy is the diplomatic acknowledgement of China’s position that there is only one Chinese government. Under the policy, Botswana recognises and has formal ties with China rather than the island of Taiwan, which China sees as breakaway province to be reunified with the mainland one day. The One China policy includes Tibet. Will our policy chance after the meeting? Highly unlikely. The One China policy is a key cornerstone of Sino-Tswana relations. It is also a fundamental bedrock of Chinese policy-making and diplomacy. In the international community, many may be willing to meet the religious leader, but very few are willing to uphold the idea of Tibet out of concern for offending China.

Botswana and China have a long history of diplomatic relations dating back from January 1975. The two countries have enjoyed progressive bilateral trade relations, political, social exchanges and cooperation. However, the relationship has hit choppy waters over the years and a change of attitude towards Chinese presence in Botswana. President Khama raised concerns regarding the operations of Chinese companies and their poor performance on government contracts.

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 releasing a press statement insinuating that China could be meddling in the disputes over the islands of South China Sea.

Given the above, Botswana should stand objectively without influence. China’s growing economy is thirsty for sustainable supplies of mineral resources, which Botswana has. On the premise, China needs Botswana, a stable base to expand her influence in the region.

Beijing may express its displeasure but it will not likely yield to significant policy shifts towards Gaborone. What would be of interest is what precedence would China set, in terms of the diplomatic tools it may be willing to use once defied. 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.

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

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