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An aerial view shows damaged buildings in Vuhledar, Donetsk region, Ukraine, in image taken from social media, January 27 2023. Picture: UKRAINE ARMY VIA FACEBOOK/REUTERS
An aerial view shows damaged buildings in Vuhledar, Donetsk region, Ukraine, in image taken from social media, January 27 2023. Picture: UKRAINE ARMY VIA FACEBOOK/REUTERS

When I worked as an analyst for a global risk consultancy many moons ago, one of my daily tasks was to update political risk bulletins as part of a subscription service that provided risk alerts, travel advisories and political risk analysis. I was the first Africa-based analyst covering Southern Africa, and six months later the firm hired a Kenyan analyst based in Nairobi to cover East Africa.

The Kenyan analyst and I would get together and lament why, despite our best efforts to provide analysis on African political events, our editors at HQ in London invariably rejected our analyses, despite having spent our lives in Africa and speaking widely to local sources. Analysis of Africa by our European colleagues was usually accepted with only minor edits. We concluded that our analysis of political events on the continent simply did not fit the Western mainstream view. 

Friends in London will disagree with me, but I think it is to SA’s advantage to continue to court China as a balance to the West. A knee-jerk response to the outraged Western response to the naval exercise to be held in February with China and Russia is therefore not necessarily in SA’s best interests.

Russia is at war with the EU, the US and the West in Ukraine. I argue that while we ought to oppose Russia’s invasion and the purported targeting of civilians and civilian infrastructure,  Russia is not at war with SA. It is not our enemy.

The three-nation joint naval exercise off SA’s coast is useful for SA to secure its coastal interests. Admittedly, it is a public-relations nightmare to hold joint operations with Russia right now, but if China can stomach holding a naval exercise with Russia so can SA.

China is the world’s largest trading nation. Open trade and commerce with the rest of the world is the oxygen it needs to survive. Without free and open trade China cannot feed and house its population, never mind continue to grow its economy. A healthy Chinese economy drives global markets and SA directly benefits.

China does not support Russia’s war in Ukraine. That Russia will be weaker economically and militarily due to the Ukraine war also means China suffers by having a weaker ally.

Since President Xi Jinping secured his third term in office late in 2022 he has reversed policies that put obstacles in the way of free trade. His priority is to revive trade and the Chinese economy.

While China will always have a difficult relationship with the US given that it is challenging Washington for global dominance, the Xi administration’s goal in 2023 is to patch up relations with as many Western countries as possible.

Russia’s war in Ukraine, and China’s alliance with Russia, makes Beijing’s task of repairing relations with European countries far more difficult. Make no mistake, Beijing did not suddenly find love for the West and Western values, but China needs trade and investments and Russia’s war in Ukraine negatively affects Beijing’s relationship with the West.

Pretoria needs to be clear eyed about the proxy war in Ukraine between Russia and the West, and the nuances of self-interest calculation that exist in the alliance between China and Russia. In the same way that cracks are developing between Western countries on support for Ukraine, there are fissures of disagreement between China and Russia.

Both China and India have come out to say they do not support the war in Ukraine, but they certainly won’t join the West in condemning Russia. China is now open for business and economic self-interest will be Beijing’s primary driver.

It is in the interests of SA business to be mindful of the Brics perspective on the war in Ukraine when working with partners from across the world.

• Dr Kuo, a former lecturer at the Shanghai International Studies University in China, is adjunct senior lecturer in the University of Cape Town’s Graduate School of Business.

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