Retrospectively speaking, the recent reckless comments by Botswana on the highly sensitive South China Sea issue did not come as a surprise. Rather, it would have been a surprise had they said something substantive, objective and conforming to diplomatic etiquette.
I suppose by now, the diplomatic community here has gotten too accustomed to these ‘schizophrenic feats’ of its host. Although the comments were aimed at embarrassing China at international stage, they also served as a calculated move directed at exploiting strategic differences in US-China relations. A kind of rudimentary move to divide and conquer. All those keenly following the issue would be acquainted to the fact that the dispute is now snowballing into a geo-strategic and military tinderbox and the risk open conflict is real. The strategic warning signals are already there for all to see. The ongoing strategic ‘posturing’ by both US and China in the South China Sea, which includes heightened rhetoric and deployment of strategic air and naval assets, are indicative of heightened risk of open conflict.
The US has so far shown determination to present itself as guarantor of freedom of navigation in the South China Sea dispute, thereby, not only challenging China in her sphere of influence but also disputing her territorial claim of the region. In backing this position, US Secretary of Defense, Ash Carter declared that, United States will fly, sail, and operate wherever international law allows, as we do around the world, and the South China Sea is not and will not be an exception.
This prompted an angry response from Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Lu Kang, who said, I advise the US not to make a fool out of themselves in trying to be smart. Recently, Admiral Sun Jianguo, Deputy Chief of the Chinese Joint Staff Department has remarked that, We dont make trouble but we dont fear trouble. In the light of these overt developments, one would have expected our foreign policy practitioners to be aware that the South China Sea issue is evolving into a textbook standoff between two great powers. This would have surely informed approach and sensitivity into the issue.
However, Botswana’s comment on the South China Sea issue came from a foregone conclusion that China was an aggressor. This inversely supported US position on the matter and to an extent gave the Chinese an impression that Botswana was just following through on US ‘instructions.’
As far as I am concerned, this was not the case because it would insinuate an ‘ally-type’ of relationship between US and Botswana. Under President Khama, US-Botswana relations can be described as ‘love-on-the-rocks.’ They are no longer at a level where US can rely on Botswana for policy projection. The way I see it, the US retains peripheral influence and it is mostly institution-to-institution based. Although there are many factors affecting this relationship, as far as I am concerned, it boils down to trust. Khama’s government does not seem to trust Americans.
There is unpronounced suspicion by the Khama regime on US activities here, especially their relationship with private media. Having said that, there is also a narrative doing circles in political and security corridors, which accuses Americans of ‘propping’ UDC. Therefore, there is little or no room for US to have dictated to Botswana what to say. As far as I am concerned, the move was directed at further polarising the two major powers.
The more polarised, the more they are vulnerable to his personal exploits. This would then mean, the two countries would have to out-compete each other for his attention and ultimately for his Khama’s pseudo-philanthropy projects.
The fact is, the strategic end-goal of Khama in any engagement, is always premised on acknowledgement and affirmation.