Recently, I had the great pleasure of participating in a conference organ- ised by South Africa’s Institute for Global Dialogue and Germany’s Friedrich Ebert Stiftung, on the topic of South Africa and the Bric countries – that is, Brazil, Russia, India and China. I was one of two discussants in the session that was mainly, but not entirely, concerned with trade relations between the five countries, that is, I had to listen to the papers presented and comment on what I thought were the most important points they made – or failed to make.
Excellent papers were presented by a representative of the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) and by Standard Bank econo- mists Simon Freemantle and Jeremy Stevens (the article on page 22 in this issue deals with only a part of their paper). Moreover, my fellow discussant did a great job of surveying and highlighting the papers from the DTI and Freemantle and Stevens.
That left me, as the last speaker, free to concentrate on the one paper that had given me cause for concern – the paper presented by a senior official from the Department of International Relations and Cooperation, which is, it seems, acronymed to Dirco. (I am not giving the names of any of the representa- tives of the DTI and Dirco to avoid embarrass- ment and possible interdepartmental wrangles.) Note, this official left as soon as the last paper had been presented, apologising and saying that he had to meet a foreign delegation, so I, perforce, had to make my criticisms “behind his back”, as I said to the audience.
What disturbed me was that, whereas the DTI paper was down to earth, frank and realistic, the Dirco paper was pretty much an ideological pronouncement and, worse, the ideological worldview displayed bore little resemblance to reality. I must add that I was kind of expecting this. For some time now, I have noted with growing concern that all too many South African officials, academics, journalists and other commentators have adopted just such an ideological worldview that is not only out of kilter with reality but sometimes downright contradicts it.
Fundamental elements of this ideology include a rigid North-South (developed world-developing world) dichotomy, an assumption of common interest and solidarity among all nations of the South, an assumption of a greater or lesser degree of rivalry between North and South, and a tinge of resentment, even hostility, against the West. Facts are twisted to fit this framework, and if they cannot be made to fit, they are filtered out, no matter how important they are.
Thus, I vividly remember the comment of a South African journalist some months ago that Brazil could be an ally of South Africa against the West. Similarly, the Dirco partici- pant in the recent conference asserted that the “broad West” opposed the rise of the new emerging powers that are transforming the world. But Brazil is part of the West. (When I pointed this out, the Brazilian academic attending the conference nodded in agreement.)
True, it has issue-specific arguments on agriculture, trade and tariffs with the US and the European Union (EU). But there are EU countries, such as Denmark, the Netherlands and the UK, that also argue against current EU agriculture and trade policies. Brazil has no ideological or cultural disagreements with its fellow Western countries. Indeed, it is a mutual defence treaty ally of the US, and its rise to the status of an new power has been explicity welcomed and endorsed by, for example, both Britain and France.
The ‘broad West” also, it should be noted, includes Japan, South Korea and Taiwan.
Strictly speaking, it also includes Russia, which is as much an inheritor of the Greco-Roman Judeo-Christian traditions as Britain, France, Germany of the US are. Russia just inherited them in a different form, via the Byzantine Empire, which is our modern name for what was really the Eastern Roman Empire, which was only finally extinguished in AD 1453 with the fall of Constantinople to the Turks.
Much more striking has been the way South African officialdom and commentariat have almost completely ignored the strategic alignment between the US and India. The Indian academic attending the conference told me afterwards how surprised she was that her South African counterparts had failed to “assimilate” the US-India strategic alignment, which, she correctly said, was a “game changer” in international politics. The centrepiece of this alignment is, of course, the US-India nuclear agreement, which allows India to access international civil nuclear technology and markets without having to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. What, I asked the conference, greater sign of the acceptance of the rise of India could the US give? Especially as this deal was done on Indian, not US, terms.
What is more worrying is the way that all too many people in South Africa refuse to recognise the growing rivalries between the new emerging powers. Did you know that China claims a chunk of Indian territory? Beijing claims the whole of the state of Arunachal Pradesh in the north-east corner of India, and, after a long time of letting sleeping dogs lie, in recent years, the Chinese have been reasserting their claim. In response, last year, New Delhi announced that it was moving two additional army divisions and two fighter squadrons to the north-east to bolster its defences in the region.
In September, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, although acknowledging that the world was large enough for China and India to “cooperate and compete”, nevertheless, cautioned: “China would like to have a foothold in South Asia . . . There is a new assertiveness among the Chinese. It is difficult to tell which way it will go. So it’s important to be prepared.”
China also recently displayed assertiveness against Japan, Vietnam and other neighbours. There are also clear signs of rivalry between China, India, Japan, South Korea and, to a lesser extent, Brazil, over access to resources and markets in Africa.
Now, South Africa can – and most definitely should – be friendly with, and trade with, China and India and all other powers that have disagreements and rivalries among themselves.
However, outside the DTI, there appears to be no recognition that these emerging powers are just as tough to do trade deals with as are the US and the EU. The problem comes with trying to create strategic partnerships, which imply alignment, if not alliance. (Can you think of any countries that are strategic partners and not allies?) Such relationships create entanglements that could become very awkward for South Africa in the (not-too-distant) future, as the rivalries between especially the emerging Asian powers are likely to hot up.