Developmental Impact of Botswana-Sino Relations

PESA Editorial - Botswana - 2Q2018/19

Despite the abundance of natural resources, numerous African countries found development difficult to attain following their independence due to low levels of external investment, governance challenges and aid. The decolonisation period coincided with China’s ascent as a global political and economic power[1]. China’s ensuing rapid growth made it an increasingly important export destination as newly independent African nations attempted to establish themselves and improve their economic conditions. The connection between China’s increasing need for natural resources and African States’ need for export and investment markets created an atmosphere for seemingly mutually beneficial economic partnerships. In the years following Independence, African countries become increasingly frustrated by complex Western donor policies and restrictive multilateral partnerships, and China became a viable alternative.

 

Relations between Botswana and China began in 1971 when Botswana voted in favour of the People’s Republic of China taking the seat for China at the UN, instead of Taiwan[2]. Official diplomatic bilateral relations between the two nations began in 1975 and for the following quarter of century remained largely positive; although low-key[3]. Over the years, Botswana became one of the fastest growing economies with an average annual growth of about 9% in 2006[4]. The rapid growth made the country an increasing attractive destination for Chinese trade and investment. Accordingly, the two nations entered in to bilateral agreements on investment and preferential loans in 2000, which also included cultural and agricultural cooperation[5].

 

Historically, the Sino-Africa relations have been categorised into five dimensions: economic relations, diplomatic and political cooperation, peace and security, education and community relations[6]. Accordingly, contemporary Botswana-China relations operate along those lines. Initially, the interactions between the two nations low although relatively positive. In education, a handful long-term scholarships were provided for Batswana students to study in China. In the health sector, China began regularly sending medical teams to work in Botswana hospitals after 1981[7]. China has historically been criticised for employing a ‘don’t tell’ policy where they will not criticise or involve themselves in the domestic affairs of African states as long as China had access to resources[8]. Fortunately, Botswana is generally regarded as the continent’s model for good governance and exists as Africa’s longest continuous multi-party democracy and one of the most politically stable countries. In this regard, the political cooperation and security dimension of the two nations’ relations has yet to be showcased.

 

The field of peace and security remains the least significant dimension of Botswana-China relations. In contrast to the situation in the neighbouring countries of Mozambique, Namibia, Zimbabwe and Zambia, China’s military relations with Botswana are minimal[9]. Furthermore, the Chinese Embassy has no defence attaché in Botswana. However, China provides training exchanges for a small number of police personnel, as well as the Botswana Defence Force[10]. The minimal interaction between the two nations in this field can also be attributed to the relative peace and stability in Botswana and its small security sector.

 

Botswana’s political and socioeconomic stability has resulted in the economic dimension being the most important and prominent aspect of the bilateral relationship. Chinese companies are most prominent in two sectors: construction and retail. With Botswana’s rapid economic growth, there has been a gradual increase of Chinese construction workers and shop-owners, further deepening relations.

 

The majority of China’s imports are from resource-rich (especially in oil) countries. This has helped engender the notion that China focused its efforts primarily on those countries with natural resources. However, the relationship with Botswana does not support the case as the country does not sell diamonds directly to China, the world’s second largest consumer of the gem. Furthermore, despite showing strong interest, there is no Chinese investment in the Botswana mining sector[11]. Compared to other African nations, Botswana appeared to be China’s least important trading partner in the region. Trade does not flow equally both ways and out of the African countries China traded externally with, Botswana was at the bottom of the list. As illustrated in the figure below, between 2006 and 2016, exports to China (as a % of total exports) averaged 1.7%, peaking at 5.6% in 2008. In 2016 Botswana’s exports and imports totalled USD7.3bn and USD6.1bn, respectively[12]. Out of the total exports, exports to China accounted for 0.7% whilst Imports from China accounted for 1.5% of the total. Given China’s size and economic capability, trade between the two countries appears uneven, with China gaining more than Botswana.

 

Relations between China and Botswana have historically been considered relatively positive. However, in the last few years there has been some friction in the relationship. One of the major sources of friction between the nations bilateral relation was the performance of Chinese construction companies and their performance on Government contracts. There is a widespread perception that China does poor quality work in Africa. In Botswana, shoddy workmanship has become synonymous with Chinese contractors[13].

 

PESA Editorial - Botswana - 2Q2018/19
Source: UNCTAD 2018, UNCTADStat Database.

 

Critics frequently argue that the Chinese infrastructure strategy in Botswana makes it easier for Botswana to import finished Chinese products easily rather than making it easier for the Botswana to add value to raw material and export them as finished products[14]. Additionally, in 2013, the Botswana Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation publicly criticised the substandard work and unscrupulous practices of some Chinese contractors and urged the Chinese Ambassador to address the issue in order to maintain and solidify relations between the nations[15].

 

Another source of friction between China and Botswana was the apparent one-sided relationship between the two. Critics have always stressed that the relationship did not benefit all groups in society equally. The Ambassador has praised the Chinese presence in Botswana, arguing that thousands of local job opportunities have been created[16]. However, local critics highlighted the lack of Chinese investors in local companies. A popular contention among the locals was the apparent Chinese importation of labour where Chinese firms bring their own workforce to work on local projects[17]. This way there is minimal technology and skills transfer leaving the Botswana workforce no better off than they were prior to the arrival of the Chinese.

 

Imported Chinese labour also tends to live segregated from local Botswana communities. The separation tends to create some animosity between two communities, threatening cohesion and cultural exchanges. Furthermore, the lack of skills and technology transfer can further intensify the apparent one-way relationship thus making relations more challenging for Botswana.

 

Chinese presence in Africa tends to flood the local market with cheap products thus making it harder for local businesses to compete. However, proponents of Chinese trading in Botswana have argued that cheap imports, particularly in the form of clothing and textiles empowered the poor who could not previously afford such goods[18]. Although construction tends to be concentrated in certain arrears, Chinese retail firms operate in diverse geographical locations with small shops scattered all over, including rural areas. The Botswana government does not encourage Chinese investment in the retail and wholesale sectors fearing that it may cause damage to the local markets[19].

 

Relations between Botswana and China have been generally positive. However, there has been a growing local perception that the relationship benefits China more than Botswana.  Various measures can be undertaken to strengthen the relations and help distribute economic gains evenly. The major problem area within the bilateral relationship between the two nations appears to be the economic aspect, particularly in the construction and retail sectors. It would benefit both economies to improve relations and strategise ways to ensure timely and quality infrastructure within stipulated budgets. Additionally, open discussions regarding problematic construction projects should be held in order to establish a clear accountability process.

 

In the retail sector, processes need to be built to ensure that Chinese and local businesses coexist and more jobs are created. The Botswana government also needs to be strategic and ensure skills and technology are transferred so that Botswana becomes less economically reliant on China in the long-term. Chinese business immigrants also need to be encouraged to assimilate well with the locals in order to build cultural and community relations.

 

The Botswana-China relations have been in existence over forty years and has generally remained positive.  The economic dimension of the relationship is the most prominent and thus the source of some friction. Proponents of the bilateral relationship argue that China creates jobs and injects the necessary investment needed for the economy grow. On the other hand, critics acknowledge the importance of the relationship but argue that the economic benefits favour China more than Botswana. Critics further assert that Chinese presence in the country has not contributed in skills and technology transfer and has squeezed out some local businesses in the retail sector. In order to strengthen relations and evenly distribute economic gains between the two nations, there need to be transparent and well enforced strategies that create an atmosphere of accountability.


[1] Moahi, K. 2015. ‘An Analysis of Botswana-China Relations in the Botswana Print Media’, PULA: Botswana Journal of African Studies, Vol. 29, No. 1, pp. 61-75. Available At: http://journals.ub.bw/ [Last Accessed: 28 June 2018].

[2] Youngman, F. 2017. Strengthening Africa-China Relations: A Perspective from Botswana, Stellenbosch University: Stellenbosch. Available At: http://www0.sun.ac.za/ [Last Accessed: 28 June 2018].

[3] Berhe, M.G. and Hongwu, L. 2013. China-Africa Relations: Governance, Peace and Security, Institute for Peace and Security Studies and Institute of African Studies: Addis Ababa. Available At: https://www.africaportal.org/ [Last Accessed: 12 September 2018].

[4] Maipose, G. S. 2008. Institutional Dynamics of Sustained Rapid Economic Growth with Limited Impact on Poverty Reduction, United Nations Research Institute for Social Development: Geneva. Available At: http://www.unrisd.org/ [Last Accessed: 31 July 2018].

[5] Youngman, F. 2017. Strengthening Africa-China Relations: A Perspective from Botswana, ibid.

[6] Moahi, K. 2015. ‘An Analysis of Botswana-China Relations in the Botswana Print Media’, ibid.

[7] Youngman, F. 2017. Strengthening Africa-China Relations: A Perspective from Botswana, ibid.

[8] Youngman, F. 2017. Strengthening Africa-China Relations: A Perspective from Botswana, ibid.

[9] Youngman, F. 2017. Strengthening Africa-China Relations: A Perspective from Botswana, ibid.

[10] Youngman, F. 2017. Strengthening Africa-China Relations: A Perspective from Botswana, ibid.

[11] Youngman, F. 2017. Strengthening Africa-China Relations: A Perspective from Botswana, ibid.

[12] WITS 2018. Product Imports by Botswana from China 2016, World Integrated Trade Solution: Washington, DC. Available At: https://wits.worldbank.org/ [Last Accessed 5 August 2018].

[13] Moahi, K. 2015. ‘An Analysis of Botswana-China Relations in the Botswana Print Media’, ibid.

[14] Youngman, F. 2017. Strengthening Africa-China Relations: A Perspective from Botswana, ibid.

[15] Youngman, F. 2017. Strengthening Africa-China Relations: A Perspective from Botswana, ibid.

[16] Huanxiing, L. 2010. Memories and Blessings of China-Botswana Relations, on the Embassy of the People’s Republic of China in the Republic of Botswana Website, viewed on 24 June 2018, from http://bw.china-embassy.org/.

[17] MO 2016. ‘China's Role in Infrastructure Development in Botswana’, Mmegi Online, viewed on 1 August 2018, from http://www.mmegi.bw/.

[18] Moahi, K. 2015. ‘An Analysis of Botswana-China Relations in the Botswana Print Media’, ibid.

[19] Youngman, F. 2017. Strengthening Africa-China Relations: A Perspective from Botswana, ibid.


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