|China / South Africa -- a Chopsticks Relationship|
By PJ Botha
A relationship is rather like chopsticks: workable and useful only if the two parties act in unison to achieve a common objective. This homily sums up the ten year relationship between China, the regional giant in Asia, and South Africa the regional power in Africa.
After Nelson Mandela's release from prison in 1990 and the unbanning of the ANC and the Communist party, the ground was fertile for the National Party government to start a dialogue with the Peoples Republic of China (PRC). From South Africa's perspective, it would loosen the shackles of isolation with one of the sleeping giants of the non-aligned world and a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council and create the momentum to establish relations with the rest of the world that had not recognised South Africa. From China's perspective it would place a wedge between Taiwan and South Africa, further isolating the island and allow China incremental access to the largest economy in Africa and the political power house of Southern Africa.
Strategically there was sufficient push and pull from both sides to drive the establishment of relations. This accounted for the whirlwind speed at which initial contacts were established. South Korea and Indonesia had taken decades! The inhibiting factors were the wariness of the liberation movements to allow removal of the leverage that isolation provided them at the negotiating table and the conservative element within the National Party government that did not wish to "sup with the communist devil" and undermine Taiwan's position.
What did assist the process was the history of the liberation movements' relationships with the Soviet Union and the PRC. The Pan African Congress (PAC) was closely aligned to the PRC while the African National Congress (ANC) had a greater affinity towards the Soviet Union. The ANC being the dominant negotiating partner with the National Party government had less leverage to stall the advancement of relationships and dialogue that was initiated by the South African consulate general in Hong Kong with Beijing. On the National Party side, foreign policy was largely driven by the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) due to government's preoccupation with the protracted negotiation process in South Africa. This allowed the foreign minister and his director general considerable leeway to start a dialogue and establish relations with a number of countries.
Perhaps it was these factors that accounted for the rapid movement towards the establishment of the first unofficial offices in the respective countries.
For more than a year there were a flourish of visits and exchanges, culminating in the meeting between the South African foreign minister Pik Botha and his Chinese counterpart Qian Qichen in Beijing in October 1991. Here it was decided to create a channel for the exchange of views leading to the opening of the China Institute for International Studies in Pretoria in February 1992 and the South African Centre for Chinese Studies in Beijing the following month. The further expansion of relations would depend on the abolition of apartheid, that was being dismantled and the severance of diplomatic relations with Taiwan. In his book 'Ten Episodes in China's Diplomacy' former Foreign Minister and State Councillor, Qian Qichen, referring to bilateral relations writes: "South Africa is an important country in Africa, as China is in Asia. Taiwan is part of China. Sino-South African relations should continue to develop. China proposes we set up offices in each others country and thus build channels for direct contact. Then we may proceed with discussions on the possibility of further development of the relations between our two countries".
In a sense there was a natural fit between South Africa and China at the time. Dramatic change was taking place in South Africa. This resulted in the country reaching out to the rest of the world after decades of isolation. China, for its part, was opening up its economy and re-integrating into the outside world after years of introspection.
There was no expectation of establishing full diplomatic relations until a new democratic government was in place in South Africa. But once the new government of national unity was installed, it was assumed by both sides that South Africa would do what the rest of the world had done and recognise Beijing's "One China Policy". This did not happen and there remains much speculation as to why it took until 1998 for full diplomatic relations to be established.
A merging of many factors led to the delay. The main stumbling block was President Mandela's hope that South Africa could maintain diplomatic relations with both the PRC and Taiwan. This was not negotiable for China. Taiwan encouraged Mandela to support this line of thinking, hoping that because of his untouchable international status, he could achieve what other great powers had not. At the same time there was a strong lobby amongst all parties represented in parliament to maintain relations with Taiwan. The pervading perception being that there was more benefit economically for South Africa in maintaining diplomatic relations with Taiwan than with China, which had not yet achieved the economic power it now enjoys. There was also the matter of finance provided by Taiwan to the dominant parties in South Africa's landmark 1994 elections. The Chinese on the other hand were confident South Africa would fall in line with international practice and that it was only a matter of time before the change would be made. It surprised Beijing when Mandela stood firm by making statements that South Africa did not see the need to break off relations with Taiwan.
To complicate matters there was a perception created that the relationship between Taiwan and South Africa was crucial from an economic perspective because of the Taiwanese business interests and the potential to invest in South Africa. Investment flows had not materialised as was expected after the government of national unity was formed, and the Taiwanese with their massive reserves promised to make substantial investment into training, infrastructure and trade. Many believed that diplomatic relations with Taiwan held more economic benefits for South Africa.
This proved to be false as Taiwan held back on some of the major investments promised. At a strategic meeting arranged by DFA to which all government departments were invited, it was established that South Africa had very little to lose. After an audit of the impact, it emerged that only the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) had serious reservations about switching diplomatic relations. The Department of Defence (DoD) was angered by the lack of support they had received from the Taiwanese, particularly in the eighties when the war in Angola was at its height. Armscor and Denel did not trust Taiwan and believed the arms purchased were merely being used as prototypes for re-engineering. The Department of Agriculture was incensed that notwithstanding Taiwan's insistence that they gave South Africa preferential treatment, they could not get South African fruit into Taiwan because of inflexibility concerning phyto-sanitary requirements. To make matters worse, Australia, who did not have full diplomatic relations with Taiwan, was allowed to export fruit and particularly oranges to Taiwan. It was also rumoured that the National Party Minister of Finance went to Taiwan after P.W. Botha's infamous "Rubicon" speech to ask for emergency credit lines and returned empty handed. It aggravated many, as Taiwan at that stage had one of the highest foreign reserves in the world.
There were two factions in the DFA: The first, mainly represented by the directorate for Asia and Australasia, understood the sensitivities and issues surrounding China and Taiwan. The other tendency naively believed South Africa could somehow arrange for an unprecedented form of dual recognition. The former were bullish about China's future and understood the importance of being in step with the rest of the international community regarding a permanent member of the Security Council. The latter were influenced by academics and other commentators who were being funded by the Taiwanese to promote dual recognition.
This lobbying by the Taiwanese became quite intense and acrimonious at times with the Taiwanese Ambassador Loh I-Cheng accusing the Asia directorate of undermining the good relations between Taiwan and South Africa. Ambassador Loh also wrote a formal letter of complaint to Mandela naming certain diplomatic officers and in particular, the director and the assistant director of the Asia and Australasia Desk. In his book "Valiant but Fruitless Endeavors, Memoirs of I-Cheng Loh" he again singles out these two diplomats as having contributed to the breaking off of relations with Taiwan. However, the approach of the directorate was always to assess what is in South Africa's interests and not to become embroiled in the squabbles between other countries. There was no question of choosing sides.
From the period after the ANC government came to power in 1994 until the historic shift by Mandela on 26 November 1996, there was infighting within the ranks of the South African Department of Foreign Affairs. Foreign Minister Alfred Nzo was captive to Mandela's position on the "two Chinas" issue and the deputy minister, who supported the immediate recognition of China, was at loggerheads with the director general, who backed Mandela's position on maintaining diplomatic relations with Taiwan. As a result, on more than one occasion, draft cabinet documents drawn up by the directorate for cabinet to consider regarding making the diplomatic switch, never reached the president's office or the agenda for cabinet's consideration.
This impasse confused the Director of China's Centre for South African Studies, Ji Peiding (later assistant Foreign Minister) and Beijing. What was expected to be a formality post independence had not happened after two and a half years. The director worked diligently behind the scenes to convince key decision makers in the ANC led government of the importance of abandoning the hope of a "two China's" policy and aligning itself with the rest of the world. Through continuous lobbying and persistently engaging the issue with Mandela, change happened suddenly and unexpectedly. On 27 November 1996 South Africa severed diplomatic relations with Taiwan effective as of 31 December 1997. Full diplomatic relations were only established between the Republic of South Africa and the PRC on 1 January 1998 - more than a year after Mandela's announcement.
South Africa and China have built on the foundation set by President Jiang Zemin and President Mandela, with both countries developing complementary positions in multi-lateral forums and expanding their relations across all fronts, to the extent that China is now one of South Africa's most important trading partners and an ally in tackling many of the challenges facing the developing world.
Truly a "Chopstick relationship"!
PJ Botha is the Vice Chairperson of The African Asian Society.