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China will rule the world

Sipho Hlongwane is a writer and columnist for Daily Maverick. His other work interests also include motoring, music and technology, for which he has some awards. In a previous life, he drove forklift trucks, hosted radio shows, waited tables, and was once bitten by a large monitor lizard on his ankle. It hurt a lot. Arsenal Football Club is his only permanent obsession. He appears in these pages as a political correspondent.

It isn’t without reason that most developing countries are either aligning themselves with China or hedging their bets and leaving that avenue of foreign diplomacy open. If you were an African, Asian or South American country, would you bet on the long-term dominance of the USA or the European Union? The current global economic situation suggests a major power shift in the next two decades is in the offing, and the Chinese would be stupid not to use it to their advantage.

In a splendid display of condescension, Eve Fairbanks wrote in Foreign Policy, “Why has South Africa – ground zero for the idea that a society based on freedom and human rights is the only acceptable society – so hesitated to advance this notion internationally? Is the Rainbow Nation abandoning its identity as a moral torchbearer to rush to the side of whoever happens to be holding the biggest butter dish?”

Fairbanks goes on to excoriate South Africa’s foreign policy stance, suggesting that Chinese and Libyan money has bought Pretoria. Which isn’t a new theory, but one that consistently misses one glaring assumption: because the West imagines that it single-handedly supported the fight against apartheid, South Africa under the new dispensation would turn into a veritable post-liberal society, albeit one laced with an almost neo-conservative desire to push its worldview (copied from Washington DC and where have you) across the world. Essentially, just because there was popular liberal support against the apartheid programme, this bit of the world imagined that South Africa would become like that. And in a sense, it did – our Constitution is the most progressive you’ll find.

A lot of criticism aimed at South Africa’s foreign policy comes from that point of view. Some expect that South Africa’s anti-apartheid history will lead to us traipsing across the globe, preaching at China, Myanmar and Zimbabwe.

It’s been almost the opposite. It still is funny to watch commentators and leaders in the West recoil in horror at the African National Congress’ predilection for Chinese politics. They surely can’t be ignorant of the fact that the ANC received asylum and funding from countries like Communist Russia and China, Cuba, East Germany, Algiers and Libya. Perhaps more importantly, the ANC was steeped in Marxist ideology in the struggle years because so many cadres received training in Marxist countries. That doesn’t just go away because liberals (and a fair sprinkling of conservatives) in the West think it should.

South Africa’s bent towards a developmental state won’t end as long as the ANC is in power. Just last week, ANC secretary general Gwede Mantashe, Jessie Duarte, deputy economic development minister Enoch Godongwana and “other ANC bigwigs” spent a week on a political exchange programme in China, according to City Press. Last year, it was ANC chairwoman Baleka Mbete who led an ANC delegation to China for political education courses.

One wonders what prevents the West from doing that, given the ANC’s taste for “learning”.

As it is, what is happening in South Africa is just a small taste for what the world is going to be like. I would venture that South Africa’s preference for non-intervention and talks (and talks and talks, as in Zimbabwe) is something that would not have been learned in some think tank in New York. It is, however, an example of South Africa picking China over the US – to make one example – when it comes to foreign policy decisions. China loves non-interventionist policies on the world stage. It is one of the main reasons why it refuses to be a signatory of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court.

In the world that is now emerging – changed by the 2008 global financial crisis and Europe’s inability to extricate itself from it – there is precious little to lure emerging economies like South Africa away from China. Estimations say that China will become the world’s biggest economy at some point between 2020 and 2027. From a purely pragmatic position, why would the ANC look at that statistic and think, “No, let’s align ourselves with the European Union or the US instead of China” is beyond me.

There is also precious little that the West can do about China’s habit of making a mockery of institutions like the United Nations Security Council. Russia and China both recently vetoed a UN Security Council resolution on Syria in the wake of deadly anti-government protest crackdowns.

China is very slowly reshaping the world according to its own idea by shaking hands here and dropping a billion dollars in investment there. The West may not like it, but it’s happening. And they can’t stop the process either. Bombing Beijing would only result in the next World War that would certainly leave all of us much worse off for it.

It needed the ascendancy of an untouchable power like China to show how nonsensical the premise of the United Nations is in today’s world. What happens when Beijing doesn’t want to play along? And what happens when they walk away from the UN, taking with them the world’s developing economies?

Just about the only thing that can stop China dead in its tracks is its own economic hubris. The country is undergoing a property bubble which could explode with devastating global consequences which would sink us all.

But until that happens (and if disaster can be avoided), China will continue to pay for increasing influence away from the UN, European Union, Nato, IMF and World Bank corridors. South Africa has already picked the winner. DM


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