CACS seminar on Sino-SA relations in the UNSC

From left to right are Prof Peng Yi, Ambassador Welile Nhlapo, Dr David Monyae, Ambassador Lin Songtian, Dr Sithembile Mbete, Adv Doctor Mashabane, and a political counsellor in the Chinese Embassy. Image: The Visual Studio.

CACS seminar asks critical questions about cooperation between Sino-South African cooperation in the UN Security Council

On Thursday 16 May 2019, the UJ Centre for Africa-China Studies (CACS) and the UJ Library hosted a seminar on the subject of ‘South Africa and China at the United Nations Security Council’.

Attendees at this timely gathering included UJ staff; UJ students; government officials; and Australian, Russian, British and French diplomats. Dr Essop Pahad, former Minister in the Presidency, and Aziz Pahad, former Deputy Minister for Foreign Affairs, also attended.

The speakers were Prof Tshilidzi Marwala; UJ Vice-Chancellor and Principal; Prof Saurabh Sinha, UJ Deputy Vice-Chancellor for Research and Internationalisation; Amb. Lin Songtian, Chinese Ambassador to South Africa; Adv Doctor Mashabane, Chief Director: United Nations in the South African Department of International Relations and Cooperation (DIRCO); Amb. Welile Nhlapo,  former South African Ambassador to the United States; and Dr Sithembile Mbete, lecturer in international relations at the University of Pretoria, and an expert on the UNSC.

The seminar focused on South Africa’s current two-year term (its third since the advent of democracy in 1994) as a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council (UNSC), on which China occupies a permanent seat. The seminar provided a platform for scholars and policy-makers to reflect on previous shared terms, paint a clear picture of the present policy landscape, discuss areas of mutual interest between South Africa and China as strategic partners, and assess the outlook for collaboration on the UNSC.

In an opening address, Prof Sinha spoke about the work already done by the seven-month-old Centre for Africa-China Studies (CACS), which  was launched in November 2018, as well as the importance of China to the fortunes and prospects of Africa in general and South Africa in particular. ‘There is no doubt,’ he said, ‘that China has emerged as one of the most vital players in the international arena today. It has done this at a very rapid pace. For Africa in particular, this relationship is central, with China ranking highly among Africa’s trade and investment partners, and with these figures growing by exponential rates at each year at an average rate of 20 to 40 percent each year.

‘The Africa-China relationship needs to be studied and understood from dynamic and fact-based angles. The CACS is therefore a hub and a go-to facility for knowledge on all matters related to the political economy of the Africa-China relationship in its many layers.’

Prof Tshilidzi Marwala welcomed guests to the University of Johannesburg, and spoke about the ethos of UJ as an institution that not only promotes answers, but also encourages its research staff and students to ask as many critical questions as possible.

Dr David Monyae, CACS Co-Director, gave a brief overview of the UNSC in terms of its origins and the powers vested in it by the UN Charter, and highlighted some of the pressing issues surrounding the UNSC, including the need to democratise this important body. He then welcomed the chair of the two sessions, Prof Peng Yi, Co-Director of CACS.

Adv Mashabane spoke about a range of pressing issues surounding the UNSC, including its apparent undermining by some UN member states, resulting in a declining budget. This, he argued, had major implications for Africa, notably because it was the largest recipient of peacekeeping assistance from the UNSC. In 2016, he noted, US$5-billion of the US$8 billion budget allocated to peacekeeping for that financial year was spent in Africa. He argued that, as like-minded countries, South Africa and China should utilise the time they will spend together on the UNSC to promote an ‘African agenda’. He also stated that, despite its many problems and difficulties, the UN was still a vital role player, and the next best thing to a global government capable of bringing international order.

Amb. Lin Songtian discussed the ascent of China to the UN in 1971 and the vital role played in this by African states, many of which  voted in favour of the resolution that granted China entry and removed Taiwan. He then spoke about the interconnectedness between economics and security, China’s willingness to invest in the UN security agenda, its continued intention to pursue a ‘win-win cooperation for shared development’, and also its intention to support ‘African solutions to African issues’.

Amb. Nhlapo spoke about South Africa’s place and role in the UNSC, and reviewed some of its past decisions. Perhaps the most controversial was to vote in favour of UNSC Resolution 1973, which sanctioned a blockade of Libya, leading to the invasion of that country and the removal of Muamar Gaddafi from power.

He also highlighted the need to expand the UNSC, which at present only provides two  non-permanent seats to two African countries at a time. While arguing in favour of creating two permanent seats for African countries, he cautioned that the selection and entry of those two countries was a potential point of contention, as there would be no guarantee that they would always advance the continental agenda.

Dr Mbete spoke about the differences between South Africa’s first two terms on the UNSC. These were caused by who was at the helm of South African foreign policy, along with international dynamics, including China’s status as an ‘emerging economy’, and the US presidencies of George Bush and later Barack Obama. However, she argued that American foreign policy and its policy at the UN remained intact regardless of who was in the White House, as the US would always safeguard its own interests first and foremost. She also highlighted the deep structural inequalities underpinning the council, defined by differences in alignment between the US, the UK and France compared to China and Russia, which she termed a ‘P3 vs P2’ scenario, which often put the UNSC in gridlock.

Issues raised during the question and answer session included China’s establishment of a naval base in Djibouti and its presence on the Somali coast, and whether this was accompanied by the training of those countries’ own coast guards; the role of new media in escalating the probability of future conflicts;  and the role of the UNSC in preventing nuclear proliferation.

A CACS Policy Brief about the seminar and the implications of its proceedings will be published soon.