COVID-19 US-CHINA DISCORD AND ITS IMPACT ON SINO-SOUTH AFRICA AND SINO-AFRICAN RELATIONS

by Daryl Swanepoel
MPA, BPAHons, ND: C.Admin

OCCASIONAL PAPER
2/2020

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DISCLAIMER

Views expressed in this report do not necessarily represent the views of the Inclusive Society Institute or those of their respective Board or Council members or Members.

ABSTRACT

The COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in strained relations between the two largest global economies, the United States of America (US) and China. This discord requires countries who have longstanding and strategic relations with both these nations to carefully navigate their affairs, adopting foreign policy positions that would maintain and strengthen their interactions with both. This paper examines the effect that COVID-19 and these strained relations has had – and may still have – on South Africa’s and Africa’s foreign policy towards China. In reflecting on the tricky position in which the US-China discord is placing South Africa and many other countries on the continent, the paper comes to a few key conclusions. Firstly, the US’s withdrawal from the WHO is ill-considered, especially at a time when the global COV ID-19 pandemic requires all nations to work together in solidarity to combat this disease. Secondly, based on the mul titude of new cooperation commitments and aid packages extended from China to Africa during the pandemic, relations between the two are unlikely to be affected by the COVID-19-charged feud between China and the US. Thirdly, however, as the US too remains an integral partner to South Africa and Africa, this might see the African continent performing a difficult balancing act between the two feuding parties and their respective allies in the months and years to come.

Upon writing this paper in early July 2020, more than 11 million people worldwide had contracted the COVID-19 virus, and more than 550 000 deaths had been linked to the disease (Deutsche Welle, 2020). The virus was first detected in the Chinese city of Wuhan, where officials started reporting cases in December 2019 (WHO, 2020). Its genetic sequence was shared publicly between 11 and 12 January 2020. All indications are that it has a natural animal origin and is not a manipulated or constructed virus (WHO, 2020).

Nevertheless, accusations that the COVID-19 virus was created in a laboratory seem to persist. A study in Canada, for example, revealed that one in four Canadians believed there was at least some truth in the claim that the virus had emerged from a laboratory in Wuhan (Stecula, Pickup & Van der Linden, 2020). However, this notion appears to have been dispelled now that many researchers have studied the genomic features of the virus and have found no evidence of it being a laboratory construct. If it were, the genome sequence would have shown a mix of known and unknown features, which it does not (WHO, 2020).

Yet the United States of America (US) continues to insinuate that “COVID-19 originated in a Chinese biolab” (Ecarma, 2020). They also blame China for not being transparent when COVID-19 was first detected, and for having tried to suppress the outbreak. At a news briefing in April 2020, the US secretary of state told reporters that his country believed that Beijing had failed to report the outbreak in a timely manner, in breach of World Health Organisation rules (Brunnstrom & Pamuk, 2020).

The notion of China having behaved inap propriately in respect of COVID-19, and of the World Health Organisation (WHO) somehow being an aider and abettor, continues to gain momentum in US rhetoric. By 8 July 2020, it had escalated to the point where the US officially started the process of withdrawing from the WHO (Cohen, Hansler, Atwood, et al., 2020).

How this growing discord between the US and China will affect other nations’ relations with China remains to be seen. Whether these tensions will sway or at least dampen enthusiasm to further strengthen ties with China is yet to be determined. That it could still have an impact cannot be ruled out, especially given the current US administration’s inclination to pressurise other nations to follow its lead.

In 2018, for instance, the US threatened to cut funding to South Africa through its USAID programme when it emerged that South Africa had voted against their motion in the United Nations (UN) to declare Jerusalem the capital of Israel (Pather, 2018). USAID, through the United States President’s Emergency Plan for Aids Relief (PEPFAR), supports South Africa’s efforts to prevent and treat HIV/Aids and tuberculosis (USAID, n.d.). Granted, the aid was eventually not cut; in fact, South Africa received even more assistance in the form of a US grant of at least R410 million to combat the COVID-19 pandemic in the first half of 2020 (Home, 2020). For now, therefore, South African relations with the US appear to be sound (US Department of State, 2020).

But how could the discord being sown by the US in relation to China and the COVID-19 pandemic affect Sino-South African and Sino-Af rican relations, if at all?

PLACING SOUTH AFRICA IN A TRICKY POSITION

The US is a key strategic partner to both South Africa and other African countries who share its values of democracy, the rule of law and good governance (DIRCO, 2020). It is also South Africa’s third-largest trading partner (South African Market Insights, n.d.). At the same time, South Africa’s strategic collaboration with China extends beyond bilateral interests, as the two nations have similar views on many global issues (DIRCO, 2020). In addition, China is South Africa’s largest trading partner (South African Market Insights, n.d.).

The South African position to date has been that, given the global gravity of the COVID-19 pandemic, the US and China should engage in dialogue to address their concerns and resolve their issues in a peaceful and constructive manner. Convinced that the pandemic calls for a global inclusive solution, South Africa believes that the two global giants’ focus should be on providing support and assistance to vulnerable countries (DIRCO, 2020).

As the world’s two largest economies, the US and China both have a re sponsibility to help restore the well-being of people across the globe by reviving the world economy, which has been devastated as a result of the COVID-19 outbreak (DIRCO, 2020).

Already, the US-China trade war poses threats to the South African and African economies. Whilst Africa is not a direct target of the conflict, the impact of the quarrel is affecting the continent. The imposition of US tariffs on Chinese products has caused commodity prices and local currencies to fall. Major stock exchanges across Africa have been badly hit, which has shaken investor confidence in the continent. Indeed, it is predicted that the resulting slowdown of the Chinese economy could hinder the exports and government revenues of many economies across the African continent (Cazares, n.d.).

The COVID-19/WHO spat adds another dimension to the threat that the uneasy US-China relationships holds for the African continent. Keep in mind that Africa is heavily dependent on WHO funding. The continent receives “more than double the budget allocation of any of the five other regions the WHO administers globally”, of which approximately 60% goes towards reducing infectious diseases (Baker & Hincks, 2020). Against this backdrop, the US’s decision [to cut funding to the WHO] could have its greatest impact on Africa’s ability to fight the pandemic since it is probably the region least equipped to fight it on its own (Fabricius, 2020).

So, whilst South Africa has been measured in its response, this should not be mistaken for a lack of concern over the tensions between the US and China, especially during this period of global turmoil. Resolving US-China tensions is clearly in the global interest, particularly in so far as it affects Africa. In South Africa’s engagements in the multilateral arena, the country has emphasised the importance of the US and China bridging their differences. This it has done independently, and as chair of the African Union, as well as in the capacity of non-permanent member of the UN Security Council (DIRCO, 2020).

Pointing to the US’s key role in the sustainability of the WHO and, therefore, in the prevention of future pandemics, South Africa has urged the US to reconsider its withdrawal from the WHO. Ultimately, the capacity of all global nations is required to help combat the deadly COVID-19 pandemic and similar future outbreaks (Lindeque, 2020).

IMPACT OF COVID-19 US-CHINA DISCORD ON SOUTH AFRICA’S AND AFRICA’S WILLINGNESS TO DEEPEN SINO-AFRICAN RELATIONS

South Africa’s foreign policy is driven by five priorities. These are (i) strengthening cooperation within the Southern African Development  Community (SADC), (ii) promoting the African Agenda, (iii) strengthening South-South cooperation, (iv) strengthening multilateralism,  and (v) cooperating with strategic formations from the North. Its underpinning values are the promotion of global peace, development  and economic prosperity (DIRCO, 2020). This is the policy and values system within which the country’s strategic partnership with China  is positioned. 

The South Africa–China partnership goes beyond narrow bilateral considerations, extending into the multilateral arena. The two nations  have similar views on several global issues. The strategic partnership is guided by the respective partners’ shared aspiration to promote  economic growth, development and mutually beneficial cooperation to help eradicate inequality, poverty and unemployment (DIRCO,  2020). 

At a national level, South Africa considers its relationship with China an important vehicle to achieve the development goals articulated  in its National Development Plan (NDP) (DIRCO, 2020), which was developed by the National Planning Commission in collaboration and  consultation with South Africans from all walks of life (National Planning Commission, n.d.). To this end, South Africa pursues several  agreed cooperation mechanisms with China that provide opportunities to exchange views, adopt best practice and deepen cooperation  so as to create a better future for both countries’ peoples. These mechanisms include: 

  • a bi-national commission, which serves as a strategic platform to address issues of common interest between the two  countries, such as trade promotions and economic exchanges (RSA, 2019); 
  • a joint working group, comprising cabinet ministers from both nations, who monitors the implementation of cooperative pro jects, and manages and solves challenges that arise during the implementation of those projects (Fahamu, 2014); and
  • a strategic dialogue, which provides a platform for the regular review of the bilateral political and economic relations between  the two countries (DIRCO, 2019). 

As current chair of the African Union (RSA, 2020), South Africa understands the complexities and importance of China’s engagement  with and on the African continent. China’s focus has been on economic development and the provision of crucial socio-economic infra structure. It has also been willing to invest in geographic areas that other international financial institutions, Western governments and  companies have steered clear of to date (DIRCO, 2020). 

As the largest trading partner of South Africa and the rest of the African continent, China plays a critical role in supporting economic diversification, beneficiation, human resource development and em ployment, as well as the expansion of the continent’s manufacturing base. Its position as the global engine of economic growth has pre sented both the South African and African economies with significant  growth opportunities (DIRCO, 2020). 

In the context of COVID-19, this close cooperation was again demonstrated when South Africa and China cooperated closely on research  and the exchange of medical supplies and expertise during China’s initial outbreak of the coronavirus. During this period, South Africa  made several donations of medical equipment to help China combat the virus (news24.com, 2020 & DIRCO, 2020). Similarly, China is  now supporting South Africa and Africa by supplying them with much-needed medical equipment, training and information, and deploying  medical research teams (Mekuto, 2020). 

As to whether the COVID-19-charged discord between the US and China has had an adverse impact on Sino-South Africa and/or Sino-African relations, the answer seems to be in the negative. If anything, the sustained level of Chinese involvement on the African continent,  whether COVID-19-related or not, has served to strengthen relationships. Attempts to weaken trust in China and its intentions do not  measure up to the reality experienced by Africa’s leaders. 

Through the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC), a dialogue  platform that formalises Sino-African exchanges on various topics  (King, 2019), China has pledged to continue supporting African  countries in their fight against COVID-19. More so, it has pledged  financial support, partly through the suspension of debt servicing  and repayment. China has also undertaken to construct the African Centre for Disease Control. And through the Belt and Road Initiative, in which a number of African countries such as Egypt, Ethiopia and  South Africa are taking part (Chatzky & McBride, 2020), greater cooperation with international organisations such as the UN and WHO  is also on the agenda (Tembe, 2020). 

Beyond COVID-19, China’s President Xi Jinping has committed to support the development of the African Continental Free-Trade Area  (ACFTA), which will aim to create a single continental market for goods and services, with free movement of businesspeople and in vestments (AU, n.d.). China will help enhance connectivity, strengthen industrial capacity and develop supply chains. In addition, it will  explore broader cooperation with Africa in new areas, such as the digital economy, smart cities, clean energy and 5G mobile technology  to boost the continent’s development and revitalisation (Xi, 2020). 

China also announced measures to support WHO efforts to establish a global humanitarian response depot, which will facilitate anti-epi demic supply chains and foster “green corridors” to fast-track transportation and customs clearance. It has undertaken to make available  $2 billion over the next two years to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic, especially in developing countries, many of which are in Africa.  Through FOCAC, the construction of the China-Africa Friendship Hospitals and the pairing of Chinese and African hospitals were announced.  China has also pledged to prioritise African countries once it has succeeded in developing a COVID-19 vaccine (Abumaria, 2020). 

Clearly, therefore, many of the new economic developments, cooperation commitments and aid packages from China to Africa were  announced, and indeed commenced, during the period of combatting the COVID-19 pandemic. Moreover, this has taken place notwith standing the US-China discord. Thus, it is safe to conclude that despite the dissonance between the US and China, FOCAC will remain  an important platform for Africa and China to jointly implement their cooperation initiatives (Xinhuanet, 2020). There is little evidence  to suggest that this particular dispute between the world’s two greatest economies is affecting Sino-African affairs. 

Instead, the scenario sketched above not only suggests South Africa and Africa’s willingness to deepen China-Africa relations in the  current international environment and under present conditions; it also confirms a deep commitment on Africa’s part to honour its part nership with China and work towards taking this relationship to even greater heights. 

CONCLUSION

To ensure economic growth and development in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, and effectively combat the disease at a global lev el, South Africa believes that the international community needs to sustain and strengthen cooperation at both bilateral and multilateral  levels. Within this context, it considers China to be a proven and reliable partner to both itself and the African continent (Lotz, 2020).  This in itself is bound to drive a deepening of relations between South Africa and Africa on the one hand, and China on the other. This is  particularly so given that South Africa’s foreign policy towards China is rooted in decades of solidarity and friendship. 

Going forward, this will mean walking the tightrope between maintaining good relations with China and with the US. That tightrope might  even become more treacherous if other countries follow the US’s lead in ostracising China because of its handling of the coronavirus,  which the United Kingdom lately seems inclined to do (Langfitt, 2020).  

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OPINIION

by Ambassador Gert Grobler, BA (Hons)
Institute of African Studies, Zhejiang Normal University in Jinhua, China

The outbreak of Covid-19 has changed the world in many respects. It has also led to a new era at international relations level, with far-reaching implications for the global geopolitical, economic and security situation.

China, especially, has come into sharp focus given the significant and growing role that the country played on the international political and economic scene, prior to the outbreak of Covid-19. There is currently worldwide speculation on what the implications of Covid-19 will be for China. This raises the question of what the impact of Covid-19 will be on China’s domestic political and economic situation as well as on the country’s future role internationally, including its relations with Africa.

COVID-19 AND CHINA: STOPPING THE GIANT

CHINA’S POLITICAL AGENDA

On the domestic front, one senses a deep-seated unity, pride, and unashamed patriotism among the Chinese people. Their overwhelming support for President Xi Jinping and the government is therefore unsurprising, as is their belief that he should be credited for the effective and resolute manner in which Covid-19 was contained in China. All of which has further consolidated President Xi Jinping’s strong position as the leader of the Communist Party of China.

But there is an urgent need in China for wide-ranging discussion on political, economic, and social matters as well as international relations. These issues were addressed at the most important event in the Chinese political calendar, the “Two Sessions”, which entails the twin plenum of the National People’s Congress and the China People’s Political Consultative Conference, the topmost political advisory body to the government. This critical event took place in Beijing, from 22 May 2020, against the backdrop of Covid-19, and will significantly change domestic and international realities.

ECONOMIC AFFAIRS

On the economic front, Covid-19 has had a serious negative impact on the economy, which already showed signs of slowing down, prior to the onset of the virus, due to external factors.

While there are observers who are predicting that China’s growth rate of 6,1 percent in 2019 could drop to anything between 1 and 3  percent in 2020 – due to the significant drop in consumer spending and industrial production as well as declining demand from overseas countries, particularly in the West – the Chinese government remains optimistic that, by and large, China will still make progress  towards the achievement of its broad political, economic and social goals for 2020.

On China’s economic performance, there are many observers who point out that, based on China’s phenomenal economic growth over  the last few decades (the size of the economy doubled over the last decade), the inherent robustness of the economy, the introduction  of sensible fiscal and monetary policies and the dynamic technology/digital sector, combined with the expected gradual recovery of the  global economy, the speed of the recovery of China’s economy will come as a surprise to many. This is an opinion I entirely share.

This being said, an important factor in future global economic growth is the ongoing trade/tariff “war” between China and the USA, which is accompanied by the current deterioration of bilateral relations between the two countries.

The current attempts by President Trump and others to initiate a major shift of the economic supply chain away from China is unlikely to make any substantial progress though, given the strength and the existing integral role of China’s economy in the global economic arena. In fact, this would serve as a disincentive to many countries from following Trump’s counterproductive approach.

There is a growing frustration and despair on the Chinese side as regards the uncertainty as to whether Trump has the real intention to pursue the implementation of Phase 1 of the trade/tariffs agreement, agreed upon earlier, which holds significant benefits for both sides and which should have kicked in, early in January 2020.

The question remains whether Trump has the “political will” to proceed with the implementation of the agreement as well as continued discussions on trade matters, due to a recent Pew poll in the USA which reflected that 66 percent of all Americans hold “negative views” of China. This must unfortunately be ascribed to the ongoing unfounded attacks against China made by Trump and the USA Congress. This is a short-sighted approach by Trump, as it is generally stated by observers that lack of progress on the trade talks would cause considerably more economic headaches for the USA than for China.

INTERNATIONAL RELATIONS

With the situation regarding Covid-19 now rapidly normalising in the country, China is highly active and admirably supporting approximately 130 countries around the world with medical equipment and advice in their battle against Covid-19.

The Chinese government and private enterprises are currently also busy supporting Africa – where Covid-19 is now increasingly spreading – on a big scale with comprehensive aid packages and advice.

But despite this, and the fact that the international community overwhelmingly gave credit to the Chinese government for its efforts to contain Covid-19 in China, President Trump and his cohorts continue to launch unjustified attacks on China as regards “China’s handling of Covid-19”, with the unfortunate result that China has now become a “political football” in the domestic affairs of the USA. It is generally said in the international community that the reason for Trump’s unfair attacks on China, is to conceal his own glaring mistakes which failed to protect the USA citizens from Covid-19 and also, of course, to try and boost his chances in the upcoming presidential elections.

The USA and others have even gone so far as to propose an “investigation into the origin of Covid-19 and related issues”. It can be expected that the Chinese government may agree to this, but subject to the condition that the investigation is conducted in an “independent manner” under the auspices of the World Health Organisation and without any notion of “presumption of guilt” on China’s part, and also once the battle against Covid-19 has further progressed, which should be the main priority now.

Covid-19 emerged at a time when China was making increasing progress with its political and diplomatic acceptance in the international community as a “responsible world leader “. It is against this background, that it is doubtful whether the attempts by the USA and others “to sue China for compensation as a result of Covid-19” will succeed. Apart from a number of international law obstacles, it is a fact that there is no great appetite on the part of many leading countries in Europe, Asia and among international organisations for this counterproductive and unjust initiative. It is also highly unlikely that SA and the African Union would support it.

I agree with observers who argue that “Covid-19 will help China to enhance its role as a responsible world leader”. In fact, China through its responsible actions, have already, even prior to Covid-19, moved into the global leadership “vacuum,” left behind by leaders like Presidents Trump and Bolsanaro.

It is a fact that China’s constructive approach on burning international issues such as global peace and stability, development, climate change and support for multilateralism, is much more closely aligned to that of Europe, Asia, and Africa, than to the erratic and unpredictable policies of Trump on these key issues.

Given the significant role that China is playing in the global economy as well as the ongoing constructive role that China is adopting in the multilateral arena and global affairs, it can be expected, once the worst of Covid-19 has passed, that the international community will increasingly reach out to China, to further consolidate and promote bilateral and multilateral cooperation.

THE CHINA-AFRICA COOPERATION

Despite the recent incidents about “alleged racism against Africans in China” which the western media tried to exploit to China’s  detriment, but which was subsequently resolved between China and the AU through constructive dialogue, it can be expected that the  excellent cooperation between China and Africa will continue to gain momentum, particularly at this juncture, where Covid-19 is bound  to have a serious negative impact on the economy of the continent. The growing China-Africa friendship and cooperation was, as predict

ed, an agenda point at the “Two Sessions” plenum in Beijing, where a strong endorsement and affirmation was given to the continued China-Africa cooperation and friendship in the context of the Forum on China/ Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) in the foreseeable future.

China is already Africa’s most important economic partner and largest trade partner, with total trade increasing from USD10-billion in 2000 to USD204-billion in 2018. The economic as well as people to people cooperation between China and Africa will also be significantly enhanced in the context of the exciting and commendable Belt and Road Initiative.

In closing, despite many prophets of doom, particularly in the West, it is predicted that China will overcome all the challenges flowing  from Covid-19, through its typical determined, focused and industrious hard work approach, and that China will not only resume its key  role in global political and economic affairs but will further strengthen it in the years to come, towards a shared destiny of mankind.

This report has been published by the Inclusive Society Institute.

The Inclusive Society Institute (ISI) is an autonomous and independent institution that functions separately from any other entity. It is founded for the purpose of supporting and further deepening multi-party democracy.

The ISI’s work is motivated by its desire to achieve non-racialism, non-sexism, social justice and cohesion, economic development, and equality in South Africa, through a value system that embodies the social and national democratic principles associated with a developmental state. It recognises that a well-functioning democracy requires well-functioning political formations that are suitably equipped and capacitated. It further acknowledges that South Africa is inextricably linked to the ever transforming and interdependent global world, which necessitates international and multilateral cooperation. As such, the ISI also seeks to achieve its ideals at a global level through cooperation with like-minded parties and organs of civil society who share its basic values.

Whilst the institute undertakes research through the lens of social and national democratic values and principles, it is pragmatic, not dogmatic, in its approach.

www.inclusivesociety.org.za