US-CHINA TENSION HURTING AFRICA?
Spat between superpowers puts South Africa in a sticky situation
NEARLY 18 million people worldwide have contracted the Covid-19 virus, and more than 685 000 deaths have been linked to the disease.
All indications are that it has a natural animal origin and that it is not a manipulated or constructed virus.
Nevertheless, accusations that the virus was created in a laboratory seem to persist, even though the notion appears to have been dispelled now that many researchers have studied the genomic features of the virus.
No evidence of it being a laboratory construct was found. If it were, the genome sequence would have shown a mix of known and unknown features, which it does not.
Yet the US continues to insinuate that Covid-19 originated in a Chinese “biolab”. It also blames China for having behaved inappropriately apropos Covid-19, and the World Health Organization (WHO) for being an aider and abettor. It has escalated to the point where the US officially started the process of withdrawing from the WHO.
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 enthusiasm to further strengthen ties with China is yet to be determined.
That it could have an impact cannot be ruled out, especially given the current US administration’s inclination to pressurise other nations to follow its lead.
The US is a key strategic partner to South Africa and other African countries. It is also South Africa’s third-largest trading partner. 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.
China is also South Africa’s largest trading partner. The spat between the US and China therefore places South Africa in a tricky position.
The South African position to date has been that the US and China should engage in dialogue to address their concerns and resolve their issues in a peaceful and constructive manner.
The pandemic calls for a globally inclusive solution, and therefore the two global giants’ focus should be on providing support and assistance to vulnerable countries.
As the world’s two largest economies, they both have a responsibility to help restore the well-being of people across the globe by reviving the world economy, which has been devastated by the Covid-19 outbreak.
Already, the US-China trade war is threatening the South African and African economies. While 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. And major stock exchanges across Africa have been badly hit, shaking investor confidence in the continent.
The resulting slowdown of the Chinese economy could hinder the exports and government revenues of many economies across Africa.
For Africa, there is a further dimension to the US-China Covid-19/WHO dissonance. It receives more than double the budget allocation of any of the five other regions the WHO administers globally, of which about 60% goes towards reducing infectious diseases.
The US decision to cut WHO funding will therefore 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. South Africa therefore urges 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.
While 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, it believes, is clearly in the global interest, particularly in so far as it affects Africa. Also, for South Africa, which considers its relationship with China an important vehicle to achieve its own development goals.
In this regard, it pursues several agreed co-operation mechanisms with China that provide opportunities to exchange views, adopt best practice and deepen co-operation aimed at creating a better future for both countries’ peoples.
It 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 infrastructure.
It has also been willing to invest in geographic areas which other international financial institutions, Western governments and companies have steered clear of to date.
In the context of Covid-19, this close co-operation was again demonstrated when South Africa and China co-operated closely on research and the exchange of medical supplies and expertise during China’s initial outbreak of the coronavirus. South Africa made several donations of medical equipment to help China combat the virus in the early days.
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.
As to whether the Covid-19charged discord between the US and China has had an adverse impact on Sino-South Africa and/or Sino-African relations, it appears not.
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.
Daryl Swanepoel is chief executive of The Inclusive Society Institute which recently released a report titled “Covid19 US-China discord and its impact on Sino-South Africa and Sino-African relations”.