The skyline at Bejing's central business district in China. Picture: 123RF/SEAN PAVONE
The skyline at Bejing's central business district in China. Picture: 123RF/SEAN PAVONE

You wrote that a complication with China’s rising clout is that Pretoria may be forced to take sides, to the detriment of its relationship with the other big economic players (Tensions cloud China’s clout”, July 21). You point out that so far, SA has managed to stay on the sidelines as relations between China and the English-speaking West fall to new lows.

A concern you highlighted was that SA — and its China-invested companies, such as  Naspers — have been lucky so far not to get caught up as the elephants fight, and perhaps we can remain out of trouble before current heightened tensions subside after the US elections later in 2020.

While it has become something of a tradition for US presidential campaigners to bash China, the current low in US-China relations is unprecedented. China has just announced the closure of the US consulate in Chengdu in retaliation for the US shutting the Chinese consulate in Houston. The Hong Kong Autonomy Act — introduced in response to China introducing the National Security Law in Hong Kong — was passed unanimously in the US Congress. If Joe Biden and the Democrats win in November, there is broad consensus on checking China.

China's relationship has also soured with almost all English-speaking Western nations. China has retaliated against Australia for calling for an independent investigation into its handling of the coronavirus — but it continues to buy iron ore. It has announced it will not recognise British overseas passports after the UK announced it will offer holders of these passports in Hong Kong a path to British citizenship. It has also held two Canadians on spying charges in response to Canada holding Huawei’s CFO for possible extradition to the US.

Worst of all from SA’s perspective is the recent dust-up between Indian and Chinese soldiers along their border in the Himalayas that resulted in 20 deaths on the Indian side and an undisclosed number of deaths on the Chinese side.

The decimation of relations between two fellow Brics countries puts the entire alliance in jeopardy. This year’s 12th Brics summit was scheduled to be held on July 21 in St Petersburg and has been postponed due to the pandemic. It is doubtful that the two presidents will want to be photographed smiling together at their annual get-together next year. If the Brics enterprise dies, SA loses a powerful platform as a leading nation in Africa and a champion of the South.

From an SA and African perspective, I assess the rise of China to have been positive on the whole. On global issues such as supporting SA’s agendas in the UN security council; funding institutions such as the New Development Bank, and Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank; on African security issues such as providing support to the African Union’s African Standby Force.

Compared to the relatively lacklustre African trade and aid policies of both the Obama and Trump administrations, and given that the UK has just flopped again on its Africa policy by announcing that it is cutting £2.9bn in foreign aid, China has at least been consistent in broadly supporting the developing world.

China is no angel, and there are issues with Chinese trade and investments in Africa. Its lending to infrastructure projects has led to unsustainable debt levels in some African countries. Racist incidents against African trading communities in southern China during the pandemic has caused a diplomatic uproar and shown up Chinese racism. New antidiscrimination measures were introduced by Guangdong province officials, but no official apologies were offered.

SA is not in alliance with the West, certainly not the English-speaking West. The rising temperature between China and English-speaking Western countries is a growing pain that will not subside after US elections. The West needs to take China as it is, not what it prefers China to be. China needs to take a chill pill and let the doves take the reins.  

China will be the largest economy in the world in due course, and given the speed with which it has recovered economically, SA businesses will do better to learn mandarin and hedge their bets with the Goliath of the East rather than hankering after the days when the West ruled.  

Steven Kuo
Gordon Institute of Business Science

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