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Republican resolution an ‘arrogant’ disregard for SA’s sovereignty

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Picture: courtesy of the SANDF – The Russian Navy frigate Admiral Gorshkov in Durban Harbour. The port stop formed part of the ship’s replenishment and preparation for the joint Mosi II naval exercise, which took place off the KwaZulu-Natal coast last month. South Africa’s decision to host naval military drills which involved the host nation, Russia and China continues to attract international criticism.

By David Monyae

A group of Republicans in the US Congress tabled a resolution in the House Committee on Foreign Affairs on Monday which puts South Africa-US relations in the spotlight.

The resolution condemns South Africa’s increasingly close relationship with Russia and China, two of the US’s biggest geopolitical rivals.

Among other things, the resolution statement notes South Africa’s holding of a military exercise with Russia and China between February 17 and 24; South Africa’s voting with China in the UN General Assembly; and the South African ruling party’s close ties with the Communist Party of China (CPC).

Moreover, the resolution further highlights South Africa’s growing economic ties with China in terms of trade, finance and cultural relations, South Africa’s embracing of China’s digital technology and, most interestingly, the statement acknowledges the failure of the US policy towards South Africa to build strong bilateral relations.

The resolution makes several demands on South Africa. These include calling on South Africa to cancel all future military exercises with China and Russia, to openly condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and sever its relations with the CPC and China’s information and technology companies.

US President Joe Biden is asked to conduct a detailed and thorough review of US-South Africa bilateral relationship. By any measure, the resolution is a striking and bold statement on the US-South Africa relations. Even though a resolution in the US Congress does not have the force of law as it is simply an expression of the sentiments of one or both chambers of Congress, it may signal the potential for a future change of US policy towards South Africa.

And although it is not yet clear whether the resolution in question will be adopted by the US House of Representatives, South Africa will need to follow its progression closely. South Africa’s Department of International Relations and Co-operation (Dirco) said it was monitoring the developments around the resolution closely.

US Senator Lindsey Graham, who was in South Africa recently, assured the South African government that the resolution was not going anywhere.

Indeed, the resolution comes at a time when South Africa’s relationship with the US has been fraught with divergences and friction in the recent past. For example, South Africa has openly defied the US campaign for the isolation of Russia after its invasion of Ukraine in February last year; the US refused to support South Africa’s resolution for the waiver of intellectual property rights on Covid-19 vaccines at the World Trade Organisation; and the SA government condemned the US Embassy’s unprocedural issuing of a terror alert in November last year.

Furthermore, South Africa has embraced the Chinese technology giant Huawei while the US has blacklisted the company and encouraged some of its closest allies to do the same because of the alleged security threat that the company represents.

As such, it is clear that despite the two countries sharing democratic values and a belief in the free market economy, the ideological chasm between them has been growing wider and wider. Yet, the two countries still retain an important economic relationship with trade between them reaching $21.2billion (about R386bn) in 2021.

The US is also South Africa’s biggest bilateral source of foreign direct investment amounting to $7bn represented by over 600 companies. However, the US-South Africa trade is dwarfed by China-South Africa trade, which reached a record $54bn in 2021.

That said, the significant economic co-operation between the US and South Africa does not in any way warrant the tone adopted in the proposed resolution. The resolution is tantamount to the US dictating South Africa’s foreign policy independence.

It is an arrogant and grotesque disregard for South Africa’s standing as a sovereign state. This is exactly the kind of hegemonic behaviour that is driving potential allies away from Washington and towards other powers who treat smaller countries as equals.

South Africa has taken a position on the Russia-Ukraine war just like any other country has taken a position, and this must be respected. Further, the content of the resolution shows that some representatives in the US believe that South Africa can be a pawn in their country’s geopolitical rivalry with other major powers.

It is even more concerning that the sentiments of the resolution, while expressed by figures on the periphery of politics in Washington, match the sentiments expressed by the US Strategy Towards sub-Saharan Africa presented by the US Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, in Pretoria in August last year.

Blinken’s statement criticised China and Russia’s activities in Africa and just stopped short of telling the Continent not to work with the two countries. The White House also expressed concern over South Africa holding military exercises with China and Russia.

As such, the resolution is not far off from the thinking of the current US government. It remains to be seen whether South Africa will be taken off the Africa Growth and Opportunity Act (Agoa), which is due for renewal in 2025, as some sort of punishment for its close relations with Washington’s rivals.

David Monyae is associate Professor of International Relations and Political Science and Director of the Centre for Africa-China Studies at the University of Johannesburg.