Cold War II and its implications for Africa

Phumlani M. Majozi writes on SA's position in the growing US-China conflict

South Africa and rest of Africa in the age of Cold War II

The tensions between China and United States of America (US) are at a boiling point. Anybody who believes in world peace should be concerned about the escalating tensions between the world’s two biggest economies.

Professor Niall Ferguson, a famed historian and senior fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, has echoed that Cold War II – between China and US - is already underway. That we are now witnessing a power struggle comparable to that of US and Soviet Union during the 20th century.

Dr. Henry Kissinger, America’s controversial veteran diplomat, has basically said almost the same thing. Speaking at New Economy Forum in Beijing last year, Kissinger said “we are still in the foothills of a cold war”.

Now if Ferguson and Kissinger make such utterances, we should apply our minds to them. The two men are amongst leading experts on global politics and history. Kissinger even more so.

Donald Trump’s critics tend to argue that it is Trump who is responsible for the breakdown of US-China relationship. Well, skepticism over China is bipartisan in America. So, in a way it is disingenuous and unfair to blame one man that is Trump for the fallout. By confronting China, Trump did what American politicians should have done long time ago.

The fundamental questions we should all ask at this juncture are: How can the tensions be defused? What will it take for the two powers to find common ground to maintain a peaceful 21st century?

Well, in my opinion, Kissinger has spoken sense on how China and US should handle their relationship in the upcoming decades.

Kissinger proposes what he calls ‘co-evolution’. This is a process where “both countries pursue their domestic imperatives, cooperating where possible, and adjust their relations to minimize conflict.”, he explained in his book On China, published in 2011.

There has to be a nonstop engagement and dialogue between the two powers. At times, cooperation will be a necessity. This is a prerequisite for minimizing any conflict.

With the trade war, we have already seen that the intensification of Cold War II will cause harm around the globe.

If Cold War II intensifies, we are likely to reach a point where developing nations will be forced to choose sides – as was the case during the first Cold War.

In a scenario where Asian countries have to choose between China and US, Prime

Minister of Singapore Lee Hsien Loong said they “will be very unhappy”. Because, Loong says, many of these countries have strong trade ties with China. So, it would be very difficult for them to pick a side. I believe Africa would find itself in a similar situation.

South Africa in the midst of China-US power struggle

As to how South Africa will maneuver global politics is – under the governing African National Congress (ANC) – not difficult to predict. It may be difficult to predict when the ANC is no longer in power.

For now, those of us who keep up with politics know that ANC is fonder of China than the West. In Osaka, last year, President Cyril Ramaphosa’s administration backed China in the trade war – which I believe was a strategic mistake.

It’s not in South Africa’s interest to pick sides at this point. It’s vital that South Africa takes the middle ground. Ramaphosa’s government should continuously maintain a balanced relationship between the two countries amidst the tensions.

Speaking at Free Market Foundation in Johannesburg the other day, famous economist, Dawie Roodt, said that South Africa doesn’t have to choose one side. He was right.

South Africa’s foreign policy of the 21st century ought to be characterized and driven by economic objectives – that are measurable and attainable. There was never a time in the post-1994 South Africa where such a foreign policy was more needed.

Our economy is basically dead – as current government in collaboration with labour unions have destroyed it over the past decade. We will not demonstrate effective engagement in the international system with a weak economy.

Improving the state of our economy requires us to maintain and balance our relations with our trading partners. China is our biggest trading partner, followed by Germany, US, United Kingdom (UK) and Japan, to name a few.

How other African countries will be affected

Other African countries will be more hammered if tensions between the two powers further escalate.

The painful reality is that many countries in this continent already owe billions of dollars to China. The Chinese are now Africa’s biggest creditor.

With COVID19 pandemic that has strained public finances across the continent, African countries that owe China are currently negotiating debt-restructuring.

Surely Africa’s indebtedness to China will bring its own pressures in the continent during Cold War II. In a way, it will force countries to ally with China. And let’s be honest, Chinese communists will make sure they use their soft power to get Africans on their side.

Whatever shape the international system takes over the next decades is dependent on China and US relations. And I strongly believe Kissinger’s concept of “co-evolution” must be practiced, continuously and persistently.

The role developing countries can play is limited – but there has to be a role for them to calm the situation. That role is diplomatic – since it is the only thing, these countries are capable of at this point. They should encourage China and US to persist on the continuous diplomatic engagement.

Finding common ground means both China and US have to acknowledge their past mistakes – and commit to correcting them.

The question is: Will they be willing to acknowledge their past mistakes?

Phumlani M. Majozi is a senior fellow at African Liberty. His website is phumlanimajozi.com Follow him on Twitter: @PhumlaniMMajozi.