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South Africa: Engaging China

Business Day, Johannesburg

South Africa: Engaging China

21 June 2006

This week’s visit by Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao to seven African countries, including SA, is a highly strategic one.

Chinese leaders are reaching out to Africa to dampen worries about China’s rise on the continent, and to build influence. Wen’s visit follows hard on the heels of that by China’s president, Hu Jintao. In November, China will host a summit for more than 40 African leaders.

It is only recently that China and SA have sought to broaden their relationship. Wen’s visit, the first official one to SA by a Chinese prime minister, holds out prospects as well as challenges. It will help build ties and perhaps give impetus to, among other things, greater Chinese investment in SA, the start of talks on a free-trade agreement, and the implementation of an accord for China to restrict its textile exports to SA. But we hope the visit will also mark the start of SA talking more forthrightly to China about some of the thornier issues — such as violations of intellectual property rights, China’s export of arms to Africa, and its human rights violations. China wants a deeper engagement with SA and there is no reason not to have plain talk as part of this.

Already, China plays a big role in SA. It is now our second-largest source of imports and our eighth- largest destination for exports. In terms of Africa, Beijing is playing a growing role in the continent and it is vital for the objectives of the African Union that SA, as a regional power, engages China more actively.

Closer to home, one of the trickier discussions is likely to be around the proposed textile agreement. Details remain sketchy, but the deal involves China offering to restrict exports to SA. There is evidence that as many as 25000 local jobs have been lost in the industry as a result of cheap imports. Given that China has made this seemingly generous offer, it will be difficult for SA to lay down conditions and government is not about to erect massive trade barriers for the industry. It’s worth bearing in mind that China’s offer is not a gift. It’s in line with its strategy to reduce capacity in certain export industries and move to higher quality production for greater revenue. First prize will be to secure a commitment to begin free-trade talks which could help bring greater investment to SA and also boost SA’s exports to the Chinese market.

A discussion on free trade would also be an opportune time for Mbeki to raise concerns about China’s infringement of intellectual property rights. The Chinese say they are cracking down on copying and illegal use of brands. But evidence suggests the infringement continues in copying the big brands, CDs, and industrial designs. There are many artists and businesses in SA that possess valuable intellectual property rights and need to be protected.

It is likely that Wen and Mbeki will devote much time to discussing African economic development and security issues. Mbeki should not hesitate in raising the issue of the ongoing sale by China of arms to African countries. Small arms sold into conflict areas have become a scourge well after the real wars stop.

A report by human rights group Amnesty International released last week accuses China of using arms-for-oil deals in Sudan and elsewhere. China has permitted continued arms sales to Sudan despite widespread killings by government armed forces and allies in Darfur. There is no international arms boycott on Sudan, but these arms deals have to raise questions about China’s commitment to support the objectives of the African Union’s peace mission in Sudan, which is trying to act as a deterrent against further atrocities. Wen’s visit will provide an ideal opportunity for Mbeki to plead that China implement more stringent measures to control its arms exports.

Ultimately, China is a growth powerhouse of the world and SA needs to be part of its resurgence. But let’s ensure we don’t compromise our own ideals in the process.