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

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 United States.

This view reflects the weakening global power of the U.S, 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 U.S.-South Africa relations. Part of my doctoral thesis focused on BRICS and its efforts to democratize the post-Cold War international order, which, by U.S. admission, has come to an end. This is an important admission because the U.S. 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 U.S. 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.

The BRICS Bloc

BRICS is effectively a forum for cooperation among regional powers that seek to democratize the international political economy. The bloc has used the G20 platform — the group of 19 industrialized 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 U.S. dollar as the world’s reserve currency (de-dollarization). The 2008 credit crisis illustrated the inadequacy of the world monetary system, with the U.S. dollar at the center. But it was the Russia-Ukraine war, when U.S. sanctions against Russia backfired, which quickened efforts at de-dollarization.

The emergence of BRICS not only strengthens south-south relations, but it also weakens the inequality that characterizes 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 U.S. 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 U.S. nor NATO have been prosecuted. Thus, the U.S. has for some time undermined global governance.

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

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

The emergence of the BRICS bloc has overshadowed the G7+ meetings while centralizing 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 U.S. South Africa is the largest U.S. and EU trading partner in Africa, with the U.S. totaling R289 billion (about $16 billion in 2021) and the EU totaling a trade of R699 billion (about $38 billion in 2021).

South Africa also benefits from preferential access to U.S. 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 U.S.

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 $33 billion and China’s investment into South Africa totaled over $25 billion, creating over 400,000 local jobs since 2008.

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

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

China has 1.4 billion people and the U.S. 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 U.S. 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.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Thapelo Tselapedi is a lecturer in politics at Rhodes University.

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