In March 2018, China held the 13th National People’s Congress (NPC), and the first session of the 13th National Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), collectively known as the “two sessions,” in order to achieve its end state. Of significance were the recent elections of state leadership, where China’s President Xi Jinping was re-elected along with Premier Li Keqiang. Immediately after the “two sessions”, Yang Jiechi, Member of the Political Bureau of the CPC Central Committee and a key decision maker in China’s foreign policy, will pay an official visit to South Africa as the Special Envoy of the Chinese President Xi Jinping on March 23 -24, 2018.
Yang’s visit to South Africa comes at a time when both China and South Africa are both fresh from having held party and state elections. The African National Congress on December, 2017, hosted its 54th ANC elective conference at Nasrec, Johannesburg, and held its elections where President Cyril Ramaphosa was elected as President of the party. Ramaphosa’s election in the ANC led to a transitional process where former President Jacob Zuma stepped down and Ramaphosa was elected by the South African Parliament as State President on February 15, 2018. The election of Ramaphosa and re-election of the incumbent Xi Jinping as China’s President renews hope for the cemented bilateral relations between Pretoria and Beijing.
Yang’s visit to the country is significant as he comes to South Africa right after the NPC was concluded this week which demonstrates the level of relations between the two countries. The visit which was the first high level engagement post the NPC is designed to demonstrate China’s commitment to the the New Comprehensive Strategic Partnership which is set out in the Beijing Declaration that was signed in 2010. In the agreement, both countries express the desire to further strengthen and deepen cooperation in both political and regional affairs based on equality, mutual benefit and common development.
Both South Africa and China have aspiration and commitment to adopt innovative ways to boost trade, investment, infrastructure building, capacity building, human resources development, food security and poverty reduction. With bilateral trade continuing to grow, China has been South Africa’s biggest trade partner for nine years running. According to the latest figures, bilateral trade volume stood at 35.3 billion U.S. dollars in 2016. China is not only South Africa’s largest trading partner, but it has also emerged in recent years as a significant investor in both infrastructure and industrial projects in South Africa. There are approximately 37 Chinese official development finance projects identified in South Africa through various media reports.
Yang comes to convey a message of commitment from President Xi Jinping, that despite global changes, China will continue to support South Africa under its new dispensation through some of its new measures to be undertaken to spur growth. President Ramaphosa at the State of the Nation address stressed the acceleration of economic and social transformation of which China has already made clear its intentions to support South Africa and Africa’s initiatives of industrialisation and beneficiation.
The Chinese government also intends to enhance unity and cooperation with South Africa by ensuring the success of the Summit of the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation. South Africa and China which are Co-Chairs of FOCAC have both injected new impetus to the development of China – Africa relations by elevating a New Type of China – Africa Strategic Partnership to a higher level. The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), a multi-billion dollar project envisages to benefit South Africa and the continent are also activities that the Chinese government will continue to pursue. The fact is South Africa could be the bridge connecting the Belt and Road initiative with the African continent. In essence, both South Africa and China could work together to ensure that South Africa continues to play a leading role in Africa. The BRICS cooperation is another platform where South Africa and China could address various issues such as the growing gap between the rich and poor in the current global society which has become untenable.
Both China and South Africa have actively cooperated in the reform of global governance and contributed towards a shared prosperity and an inclusive community which is significant as this year marks the diplomatic celebration of South Africa and China’s 20 year relationship. Yang’s visit to South Africa comes at a time when it has become important to start reflecting on the achievements that have happened over the past years, and how to build upon them into the next 20 years. Although South Africa-China collaboration is set on a strong foundation, supported by the levels of interaction and deepening economic engagement, there is also the need for the past to be examined, and more opportunities to be explored for the benefit of both republics.
Dr. Yazini April Research Specialist at the HSRC’s Africa Institute. Ms April holds Masters of Arts in International Relations from the University of South Carolina in Columbia, USA, and a Juris Doctorate of Law Degree from the John Marshall School of Law, Atlanta, Georgia, USA