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China-South Africa ties at 20 years: 3 key features

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China-South Africa ties at 20 years: 3 key features

Yu-Shan Wu

11 Jun 2018

4min min read
  • International relations
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his year marks two decades of official diplomatic ties between China and South Africa. Links were forged in 1998 when a newly democratic South Africa under President Nelson Mandela was emerging out of isolation and seeking greater prominence in global affairs. At the same time, China’s rising economy, under President Ziang Zemin, motivated for closer links with the African continent. Reinforcing this relationship was Beijing’s support for South Africa’s liberation struggle pre-1994.

Next month, South Africa will for the second time, host the rotating BRICS (Brazil Russia India China South Africa) summit. The ‘BRIC’ was originally coined by former chief economist of Goldman Sachs, Jim O’Neill, in 2001 and signified countries whose population and production capacities were expanding. However, since the first Foreign Ministers’ meeting between the original four members in 2006, it has expanded beyond an economic grouping to include social, diplomatic and political issues. China invited South Africa to join the BRICS, increasingly described as a counterweight to global imperialism, in 2010.

The July summit will mark Cyril Ramaphosa’s first meeting as the country’s president, with other BRICS leaders. He will later embark on a state visit to China in early September, for the triennial Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) that celebrates and directs the trajectory of relations. 

As these events gain increased attention over the next few months, it is important to unpack the nature of China-South Africa links. This can be distilled into three overarching features:

1. The unique attributes of the relationship. Contrary to the notion that China mainly engages in resource rich countries, South Africa – which happens to be home to large mineral deposits – is also a relatively mature economy with strong institutional structures. It is for this reason that Chinese officials describe it as a ‘locomotive’ for the continent’s industrialisation. South Africa also has a vibrant civil society and media landscape (who have on occasion challenged the official narrative of relations). Moreover it receives a number of China’s cultural engagements from student scholarships, tourists, Confucius Institutes (5 as of 2016) – that teach Chinese language and culture – and hosts the largest Chinese community on the continent, consisting of generations of Chinese families.

2. What should be kept in mind is there simply isn’t a singular China-South Africa relationship – but rather relations. This is exemplified by the Chinese diaspora in the country, who is represented by different waves of migration (since the mid-17th century) and who enjoy varying degrees of assimilation in South Africa and closeness to Mainland China. 

There also isn’t a single South African view towards China. Quite simply government officials, businessmen and students who have visited and engaged with China tend to share a far more nuanced view of the country than say, those who lose economically from relations (such as trade unions). But there is increased understanding of the need for South Africa to engage with China, even though concern remains over issues like the slow pace of investment diversification. These dynamics both interact and counteract with the narrative of a ‘long-standing’ friendship pronounced at official events.

3. As new agreements are signed and historical announcements continue (like Xi’s $60 billion pledge to the continent in 2015), it is worth reminding that relations are far from static and are transforming. This is represented by the changes in presidencies in South Africa since 1994. 

It was during former President Mandela’s term that diplomatic relations were established in 1998, as recognition shifted from the Republic of China (ROC) to the People’s Republic of China (PRC), following Hong Kong’s return to China from British rule. Under President Mbeki, relations were largely cordial although he remained focused on his African Renaissance vision that emphasised relations with traditional partners. Pretoria and Beijing also diverged on issues like Sudan and Zimbabwe in the 2000s. However, their approaches have since aligned more closely. 

Zuma assumed office during the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis. Some officials believe South Africa ‘weathered’ the crisis due to its economic relations with China, which became the country’s main trading partner the year after. It has remained so for almost a decade,  with trade estimated at $39 billion (R455bn) last year. This is about 20 times the size of trade links at the beginning of relations – albeit the trade balance still favours China.

These developments were followed by a flurry of agreements, from the upgrade of relations to a comprehensive strategic partnership in 2010 and China’s support for South Africa’s BRICS membership. This collaboration continues: both countries inked an agreement in 2015 to cooperate on the Belt and Road Initiative  – China’s master plan for multi-regional connectivity, and have co-chaired FOCAC since 2012. In fact, South Africa hosted the sixth FOCAC back in 2015, the first to be held at a summit level on African soil. 

What does the future hold?

The China-South Africa relationship is the product of both informal and formal links, as well as changing policies over time. 

The question remains, will relations shift under Ramaphosa? As the former deputy president, he was already a key figure in bilateral talks with his Chinese counterpart. This suggests a degree of continuation. At the same time, Ramaphosa has also given consideration to other relations, such as his trip to Japan in 2015 to promote trade and investment. He may also pay more attention to the continent itself, having recently signed a declaration to establish a free trade region in Africa, earlier this year. 

The trajectory of relations may also be affected by factors beyond South Africa’s decision-making. Its term as the FOCAC co-chair comes to an end later this year. What remains to be seen is how the nature of South Africa’s links – with China, its African counterparts and the incoming African chair (still to be named) – will progress.  

(Main image: Russia's Foreign Affairs Minister Sergei Lavrov, India's External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj, South African Minister of International Relations and Cooperation Lindiwe Sisulu, China's Minister of Foreign Affairs Wang Yi and Brazil's Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs Marcos Galvao hold hands after concluding a BRICS foreign affairs ministers' meeting at the OR Tambo Building in Pretoria on 4 June 2018. The BRICS foreign affairs ministers are meeting in preparation for the full heads of state summit between July 25 and 27.)