Seminar on SA and China at the UN Security Council

On Thursday 16 May 2019, the Centre for Africa-China Studies (CACS) hosted a seminar on South Africa and China at the UN Security Council.

The speakers were Ambassador Welile Nhlapo, former South African Ambassador to the United States; Advocate Doctor Mashabane, Chief Director: United Nations in the Department of International Relations and Cooperation (DIRCO); and Dr Sithembile Mbethe, lecturer in International Relations at the University of Pretoria.

The seminar was chaired by Prof Peng Yi, Co-director of the UJ Confucius Institute and the CACS.

South Africa and China are serving together on the UN Security Council – China as one of five permanent members, and South Africa for its third two-year term as a non-permanent member. While they are major trading partners, their interests may not always coincide. To what extent will they collaborate, and what will be the vital enablers of cooperation? Perhaps most importantly, how will they define the African Agenda, and to what extent will they pursue this together? At this timely seminar, leading and emerging scholars explored these questions, and sought to develop cogent answers.

Concept note

South Africa and the People’s Republic of China (PRC) interact on numerous levels. Given that, since 2009, China has been South Africa’s largest trading partner, and South Africa is China’s largest trading partner in Africa, they collaborate intensively at the bilateral level.

They also interact quite closely at the multilateral level, with the leaders and representatives of both countries frequently finding themselves in the same rooms and around the same tables in forums such as FOCAC, BRICS, and the G20.

However, one of the most powerful bodies in which these two players interact, but where their cooperation cannot easily be predicted, is the United Nations Security Council (UNSC). This is so for two main reasons. First, while China is one of five permanent members of the Council, South Africa is one of ten non-permanent members, and its current two-year tenure (its third since 1994) will expire in 2020. Second, given the membership, status and mandate of the UNSC, its members are continually subjected to complex sets of pressures, both from within and outside the Council. This means that cooperation in the Council, even with supposed partners, is less straightforward than it may seem, and the outcomes are often contingent on particular circumstances and the sets of interests involved in particular issues.

South Africa was previously elected as a non-permanent member in 2007-2008, and again in 2011-2012. In those periods, it promoted the African Agenda, namely peace, security and development. China was a founding member of the UN in 1945, and therefore a permanent member of the UNSC. Until 1971, the seat was held by the Republic of China (Taiwan), and since then, following a General Assembly resolution, by the PRC.

Both countries have changed significantly since they last served on the UNSC together. Given this, there has been widespread speculation about what they will champion in the Council, and the extent to which they will support each other. To what extent will their interests coincide, and what will be the vital enablers of cooperation? Perhaps most importantly, how will they define the African Agenda, and to what extent will they pursue this together?

At this seminar, leading and emerging scholars will explore these questions in depth, and seek to develop cogent answers.

Suggested reading

Makgetla, Itumeleng. 2018. South Africa at the UN Security Council in 2019/20: What’s Different This Time? FAPISA. 18 September.

Monyae, David and Gibson Banda. 2018. Sino-South African Relations at Twenty: Key Lessons. UJCI Africa-China Occasional Paper Series. 2018.

Rupiya, Martin R. 2017. China’s Soft-Power Status (via UN Peacekeeping) and its Implications for the African Peace and Security Architecture (APSA). UJCI Africa-China Occasional Paper Series.

Van Heerden, Oscar. 2018. The reluctant Hegemon – SA’s third United Nations Security Council Seat. Daily Maverick. 13 June.

Brosig, Malte. 2018. South Africa on the UN Security Council: Priorities and challenges. Africa Portal. 20 June.

News24. 2018. US, China at odds over UN push to fund African peacekeeping. 21 November.