Why the US should be worried about South Africa’s increasingly close ties with China

By Eric Olander
Posted on Wednesday, 30 October 2019 12:02

Chinese President Xi Jinping and South African President Cyril Ramaphosa attend the 2018 Beijing Summit Of The Forum On China-Africa Cooperation - Round Table Conference at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China September 4, 2018. Lintao Zhang/Pool via REUTERS

On its own, South African Deputy President David Mabuza's week-long trip to Beijing, which started 29 October, will probably not generate a lot of headlines.

But his arrival in the Chinese capital caps a month of small but important milestones that all point to deepening of Sino-South African ties that will likely come at the expense of Pretoria’s ties with the United States.

China is already South Africa’s largest trading partner and one of its most important sources of foreign investment but the relationship is moving far beyond economics as President Cyril Ramaphosa further embraces the “Look East Policy” that his predecessor, Jacob Zuma, began.

South Africa Deputy President David Mabuza arrived in Beijing for four days of meetings with Chinese officials.

Today, Ramaphosa is one of China’s most forceful advocates in Africa, pushing back against the United States on a variety of issues ranging from Huawei to Chinese lending practices.

Even if he is quick to point out that there is “nothing sinister” about South Africa’s relationship with China and others.

When a president with the standing of Ramaphosa feels comfortable to stand up to Washington and endorse key Chinese foreign policy objectives, it creates openings for other African leaders to follow suit.

  • Case in point, just one week after President Ramaphosa accused the United States of being “clearly jealous” of Huawei’s advancements in 5G technology, Kenya’s ICT Minister Joseph Mucheru similarly rebuffed the United States on the same issue.

Now this alignment between Pretoria and Beijing is extending into the military realm as the two countries, joined by Russia, prepare for their first-ever joint naval exercises next month in South Africa.

What ‘Look East’ Looks Like
DEBT TRAP: In his regular email newsletter to constituents, sent yesterday, President Ramaphosa defended China’s lending practices in Africa and echoed Beijing’s “win-win” talking points by framing Chinese engagement on the continent as focused “on partnership for mutual benefit.”
DIPLOMACY: Last week, Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi made a one-day visit to Durban where he met with Ramaphosa. The fact that the visit drew so little press attention is partially indicative of how frequent Wang’s visits to the continent have become, to the extent that they are now a normalized part of the African political landscape.
DEFENSE: Next month’s joint naval exercise with China is only one part of the PLA’s increasingly tight relationship with the South African defense establishment. The two countries are now training together in a variety of disciplines and working more closely on military technology R&D.


Taken alone, none of these examples are conclusive.

But together they seem to indicate that momentum is building in this relationship.

Bottom line: As Wang Yi, David Mabuza and their respective militaries become more comfortable with one another, the U.S. could find itself increasingly on the margins of South Africa’s defence and foreign policy priorities.

This article first appeared on our partner site, The China Africa Project.

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