President Masisi's top foreign & trade policy priorities in 2020

Botswana continues to enjoy a significant amount of international respect, goodwill and prominence in the global South for its economic and political stability and its sustained record of macroeconomic prudence.

But, after a decade of hits and misses during the era of Ian Khama’s presidency, Botswana will have to hit the ground running, charging at full speed in pursuit of its economic interests globally.

The global geopolitical environment isn’t significantly different from how it was in 2019, and the priorities are more or less similar. Following its independence and first elections in 1965, Botswana went from being a small, poor, vulnerable state surrounded by hostile, white, racist minority regimes to being a key player in the disintegration of apartheid and a key architect of the regional integration and multilateralism agenda.

Five decades later, priorities are different, yet, equally critical to the survival of the nation state.

These are the urgent issues that must occupy the Presidency at the interplay of both foreign and domestic affairs. These will be of strategic importance in 2020, but also of long-term importance to Botswana and its interactions with Southern Africa, Africa and the world.

In a broad sense, Botswana has three issues to grapple with: Trade (US and China trade war, intra-regional trade and AfCFTA); Climate change (mitigation and adaptation effects of the climate crisis); and, concerted efforts to redefine and defend Botswana’s liberal values and commitment to multilateral solutions.  Firstly, China in Africa and the “Asian lens”. The debate on China’s role in Africa has evolved overtime. In 2019 it became less condescending and more substantive with pundits shifting the focus from China’s ‘mischievous’ agenda to African agency. Fortunately, President Masisi, at least from the comments he has made on China, has a fair and reasonable understanding of the dynamics and where the debate is shifting to. In 2020 and beyond, Botswana’s engagement and view of China and Asia will have to be more nuanced. China may be the biggest economy in Asia, but it certainly doesn’t represent the entire Asia and its dynamics. The future of economic thought, manufacturing, services, information technology and the proverbial ‘4th industrial revolution’ is in Asia. Botswana must widen its view and engage substantively with the rest of the region.

Expanding Botswana’s trade and attracting foreign investment for jobs and economic development is a major international issue for President Masisi, which he has alluded to in many of his speeches.  The foreign policy and diplomatic aspects of trade have become more pronounced in the wake of the dispute between the US and China. Trade negotiations and priority setting will have to remain an inter-ministerial priority for both the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Ministry of Trade. Smaller states will continue to be the grass that suffers in the trade dispute between the US and China. The back and forth increases in duties and tariffs on key industrial imports like steel and aluminum will have a negative impact on the global markets and integrated value chains. There’s also a huge chance that the dispute will spill over into regulation and domination of the digital and e-commerce space.  Another top long-term priority on the trade front must involve legislation on investor-state dispute settlement mechanisms. In, fact, the Ministry of Trade must move to review the entire trade policy document and ‘modernise’ it, so to speak. In the more immediate term, Botswana must continue to pursue deeper integration with its neighbours and the wider African continent in the wake of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA). 

The Presidency, together with Parliament must move to ratify the AfCFTA and draw a comprehensive strategy to exploit the advantages to market access that the agreement offers. Although AfCFTA is still in its nascent stage, there are too many issues at play.  otswana’s current industrial context and position doesn’t favour the country’s manufacturing for export sectors that must compete with bigger and more experienced manufacturing bases across the continent. In order to fully benefit in the long term, Botswana’s participation in AfCFTA would have to be through a mixture of opening and closing up borders to certain imports to nurture local industries.  On climate change, in May 2019, President Masisi officially declared Botswana to be in drought after months of unevenly distributed rains, severe heat waves and dry spells. Thousands continue to be affected by a crippling drought while rural communities have been especially affected by intensifying extreme weather conditions and are looking to the government for help.  This is now officially a global crisis, if not a humanity one. Government must act immediately, and it is without a doubt that the climate emergency will be one of Masisi’s biggest and broadest long-term diplomatic challenges. Botswana must engage in dealing collectively with climate issues regionally and globally. The aim must be to ensure secure resources for the benefit of the most seriously affected.  Climate finance is now one of the most resource intensive issues, and the President’s administration must do a lot to gain access to the billions of dollars available from multilateral institutions for climate finance.

Preparing for and dealing with the climate emergency portends huge international political and diplomatic challenges for Botswana in 2020 and beyond. The other strategic issue is crafting a refined foreign policy that inspires respect for our values and principles but at the same time, aggressively charges forward in pursuing Botswana’s economic interests. Masisi’s major forte was his focus on economic diplomacy. His predecessor made the news for punching above his wait by calling out countries for their wrongdoing while standing on the sidelines.

President Masisi has the upper hand in crafting a foreign policy agenda that will stand the test of time. He has both the charisma and the appetite to engage with the world. But this isn’t to say Khama’s rooftop diplomacy was all bad. In fact, in the country’s pursuit of its national interests abroad, there must be an almost perfect balance between economic diplomacy and promotion and speaking out in defence of values that we hold on very dearly to. This will require strategic statesmanship from the Presidency and Minister Dow, to sieve through the current geopolitical environment with knowledge of when to use ‘rooftop diplomacy’ as a last resort.

*Bakang Ntshingane is a graduate student at Chonbuk National University’s Department of International Trade in South Korea

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