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South Africa walks a tightrope of international alliances – it needs Russia, China and the west

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RELATIONS between the People’s Republic of China and Russia on one hand and the West, specifically the US, on the other have become increasingly tense in recent times. For the US, China and Russia represent authoritarian regimes. For China, the US is the source of global insecurity.

THAPELO TSELAPEDI, Politics lecturer, Rhodes University

With a few exceptions like France and the UK, the West sees the presence of Russia and China in the BRICS bloc (which also includes Brazil, India and South Africa) as contaminating the entire bloc as well as their relations with the individual BRICS member countries. This is especially so for the US.

This view reflects the weakening global power of the US, especially its inability to isolate Russia in Europe and to contain the influence of China in Asia and the developing world.

The growing tensions pose a political and economic challenge for South Africa. This is especially so for US-South Africa relations. Part of my doctoral thesis focused on BRICS and its efforts to democratise the post-Cold War international order, which, by US admission, has come to an end. This is an important admission because the US is aware that the unilateral power it used to interact with the rest of the world after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989 is now subject to competition by many forces, both economic and political.

I argue that South Africa should not choose between its BRICS or EU and US partnerships. It should keep its relations with the West while remaining within BRICS because of its economic prospects. The West remains economically significant for South Africa, but the BRICS bloc is important for South Africa’s economic adaptability.

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The BRICS bloc

BRICS is effectively a forum for cooperation among regional powers that seek to democratise the international political economy. The bloc has used the (G20) platform – the group of 19 industrialised countries plus the European Union – to establish cohesion on issues such as international financial stability, climate change mitigation and sustainable development.

At its 2011 summit, the bloc called for an end to the long reign of the US dollar as the world’s reserve currency (de-dollarisation). The 2008 credit crisis had illustrated the inadequacy of the world monetary system, with the US dollar at the centre. But it was the Russia-Ukraine war, when US sanctions against Russia backfired, which quickened efforts at de-dollarisation.

The emergence of BRICS not only strengthens south-south relations, it weakens the inequality that characterises north-south relations. Much of the global south is developing fast enough for it to not only demand a more equitable world order but also to finance it.

This brings us to international governance.

The BRICS bloc serves as a counterweight to some of the excesses of US unilateralism that’s been a feature of global governance since the end of the Soviet Union in 1989. For instance, although the 2001 NATO invasion of Afghanistan was illegal under international law and the 2003 invasion of Iraq was equally unlawful, neither the US nor NATO have been prosecuted. Thus, the US has for some time undermined global governance.

The BRICS bloc’s efforts to democratise global governance will support international accountability.

Democratising financial and governance institutions is important in addressing many of the issues that concern the developing world.

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Two men shake hands in from of Chinese and South African flags.
South African President Cyril Ramaphosa with President Xi Jinping. GCIS

The emergence of the BRICS bloc has overshadowed the G7+ meetings while centralising the G20 as an international platform for political and economic coordination. So South Africa’s exclusion from May 2023’s G7+ meeting in Japan doesn’t count for much.

South Africa and the west

Pretoria’s biggest trading partners are the EU and the US. South Africa is the largest US and EU trading partner in Africa, with the US totalling R289 billion (about US$16 billion in 2021) and the EU totalling a trade of R699 billion (about US$ 38 billion in 2021.

South Africa also benefits from preferential access to US markets for some of its exports in terms of the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA.

But the country is politically tied to the emergent multipolar world led by China, and broadly BRICS.

Even France and the UK have begun to understand the need to balance their own interests with China against their interests with their traditional ally, the US.

So South Africa’s national interests demand that it carefully navigate Western anxieties caused by its BRICS ties. It needs to show that its membership in the bloc doesn’t make it anti-west.

BRICS’ growing economic importance

Immediately after South Africa joined BRICS in 2010, China invested in several projects, including expanding Durban’s port. This is the largest and busiest shipping terminal in sub-Saharan Africa.

Trade and investment links between South Africa and China have improved too. By the end of 2021, South Africa’s exports to China reached over US$33 billion and China’s investment into South Africa totalled over US$25 billion, creating over 400,000 local jobs since 2008.

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Investments from South Africa into BRICS countries have surged since it became a bloc member. BRICS’s total trade amounted to R666 billion (about US$36 billion] in 2021. And China is an important trading partner for South Africa standing at R479 billion (about US$26 billion), above the US.

Trade between South Africa and BRICS has yet to reach the level of trade with the EU and the US, but the BRICS bloc gives the country an opportunity to diversify its investment portfolio and destination.

China has 1.4 billion people and the US has just over 300 million, so market access to China is important to any emerging economy. BRICS countries are currently responsible for roughly 31.5% of the global GDP while the G7 has come down to roughly 30%.

Navitaging anxieties

Of course, the problem of South Africa’s strained relations with the west is not South Africa’s. The problem is that the west, specifically the unilateral power that the US represents, approaches the global order as if it’s a process that flows from its benevolence.

For its own interests, South Africa must carefully navigate western anxieties about BRICS, and demonstrate that there is a common future for both the west and others in a multipolar world.