Author and consultant GALALETSANG DINTSI argues that there is no need for Africa to take sides between China and the US

Every time there is a discussion about the foreign policy of Botswana towards China or the USA, there is a tendency to compare the two. Most Batswana tend to think of the USA favourably.

While a comparison may be good for analysis in practical terms, it is not feasible to choose a side. I followed one post on Facebook about the USA being perhaps a better ally since it is a better devil than China. The proponent justified the statement by arguing that Botswana’s values are more aligned to those of the USA than China. They went on to lambast China for an appalling human rights record, lack of democratic ideals and for predatory tendencies in the new scramble for African resources.

One wonders what instrument for gauging the proponent based his arguments on? The USA and its Western allies have plundered Africa since time immemorial. The slave trade ensured that the USA had a free supply of labour that has made America what it is today. The USA’s opportunist capitalist policies have continually kept Africa a dark continent. Through the Bretton Woods institutions, the USA and its allies have continually kept African economies week and dependent on them. These institutions, through structural adjustment policies (SAPs), imposed stringent conditions for countries to qualify for assistance with either the IMF or World Bank.

The conditions set undermined African decision-making, democracy and the domestic context of the countries affected.

The USA is notorious for supporting dictators, fascist rebel groups and sponsoring coups here on African soil. The USA, that self-appointed protector and vanguard of democracy, has undermined the democratic principles of the United Nations Charter unilaterally by its aggression and wars of intervention all over the world. The famous Bush statement when intervening in Iraq in 2001, “Every nation, in every region, now has a decision to make. Either you are with us or you are with the terrorists,” captures how undemocratic the US was and it is still. The UN Security Council is mandated to make decisions on war and peace. If the US does not get its way through a Security Council resolution, it adopts a unilateral and undemocratic decision.

But this does not in any way make China any cleaner or better. China too has, in its quest for growth, plundered Africa. In what they proclaim as a win-win relationship with Africa as their friend and fellow developing world, China has relied more on soft power to gain trust of the Mother Continent. This has enabled Chinese companies to take ownership of oil companies in Angola and Sudan. They have been blamed for taking sides in conflicts and even funding these wars. There is clearly no better devil. In its own backyard, China is notorious for repressing dissent. The Tiananmen Square events of 1989 still haunt China to this day. Similar repression of freedom of assembly and expression continue to this day in Hong Kong in contravention of the “one country, two systems” unification policy which has allowed Hong Kong some autonomy. China to this day denies the South China sea territories, Xinjian and Tibet autonomy.

To go east or west? Who is the better devil? This is not the Cold War where ideology determined relations between states. Regarding Botswana’s relations with these superpowers, we don’t have to choose because how we relate with each serves a different and sometimes complementary need. For example, US-Botswana relations are more prominent in education and capacity building, youth leadership development, civil society and media capacity building. There is also strong cooperation in security, the military and law enforcement. Botswana’s military has a long partnership with the US military that encompasses education and training programmes to strengthen civil-military and military-military relations and capacity to participate meaningfully in peacekeeping and humanitarian operations.

The International Law Enforcement academy at Otse is jointly funded by the US and Botswana and has trained not only Botswana police and government officials but has extended itself to the rest of sub-Saharan Africa. It is in health that the US has and continues to play a major role in Botswana. Botswana has received substantial US assistance to fight the HIV/AIDS pandemic. The US assisted in providing free ARV treatment, tuberculosis treatment, testing, and research. Programmes such as Prevention of Mother-to-Child Transmission (PMTCT) have improved the overall health of Batswana. Botswana-US economic relations were to be bolstered by the Africa Growth Opportunity Act (AGOA). However, Botswana’s businesses have failed to utilise the duty-free access to US markets due to stringent procedures, technical regulations and quality standards of goods headed for the US market. But the AGOA preferential treatment still has the potential to provide Botswana with an opportunity to diversify and gain access to America’s wide market. As it things stand, investment by US companies remain low in Botswana.

Sino-Botswana relations have also been strong in the political, social, economic and cultural spheres. China has been providing medical assistance in the form of human resources since 1982. Chinese doctors have performed the most complex surgeries and provided much-needed medical expertise for rare and complex diseases. In the year 2000, China institutionalised its Africa policy by establishing the Forum for Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) and through which China has contributed more to infrastructure development in Africa. China has provided much needed low interest loans for construction of roads, schools, rehabilitation of rail lines and housing. With the road and belt initiative that Botswana has since become a signatory of, we expect more assistance in the areas of infrastructure development, especially in digital infrastructure.

The point is that these are the two superpowers, at this present time, for any state big or small, diplomatic relations are very important to augment their political power. When a state is assured of support from other states, its power will be enhanced in multilateral institutions. Therefore, Botswana a small country has a bit of leverage that it can use in its dealings with these superpowers. There is no need to choose but a comprehensive policy on how to deal with the two powers of our time is important. Botswana can, with like-minded small powers, bandwagon, negotiate for better programmes and packages.
Philosopher Thomas Hobbes considers humans to be naturally selfish and egoistical and so they seek to dominate others. Now states are not black boxes but are run by humans who make decisions.

The president of the USA, as a human being, is egoistical and the need to win as a human, coupled with the emotions of his citizenry who think of their country as the number one nation in the world, acting in enabling the domestic environment (big economy and powerful military), will develop policies that will cause their state to act aggressively towards other states in the international sphere. The same thing applies to China. President Xi Jinping and his politburo do not necessarily like Africa more. Just like the US government, they will do all in their power to satisfy their own human need of being able to dominate over others.

It is in the national interest of Botswana to alleviate poverty, improve livelihoods, reduce unemployment and diversify the economy. Botswana’s foreign policy team should work on concrete policies of how to ensure fruitful diplomatic relations with whichever country that has something to offer.