China’s growing influence in South Africa may displace the U.S.

China’s huge investments in Africa are a source of concern for many observers. On the optimistic side, at least some of the resulting infrastructure, growth, and investment, will benefit at least some African citizens. But the pessimistic story is also pretty compelling — the Chinese government has been using its economic clout to push its strategic and normative agendas, both of which are at odds with democratic and human rights principles. In some countries, citizens are standing up to what they perceive as negative influence – the recent Zambian election was won by an adamantly “anti-China” candidate. But in other countries, China’s influence is growing, and with some alarming consequences.

Of particular note, to me at least, is the growing influence in South Africa – the continent’s political and economic juggernaut. The most recent example of China’s influence is the SA state’s delay/potential refusal of a visa to the Dalai Lama, who was planning to come celebrate Desmond Tutu’s birthday with him. That the ANC government would so insult a man who was a beacon of solidarity during the anti-apartheid days has left the former Archbishop is piping mad.

Meanwhile, South Africa’s Deputy President, Kgalema Motlanthe, has been in China, meeting with their top leadership, and negotiating huge trade and infrastructure deals.  The Chinese have agreed to $2.5 billion in infrastructure investments, and Motlanthe did not respond to questions about the Dalai Lama.

And back in November, when the Chinese government agreed to extend a $20bn line of credit to SA for nuclear and renewable energy, it did so alongside heavy pressure on SA to join its stance on climate change – in other words, to go easy on the emissions standards for rapidly growing, developing countries.

So what’s abundantly clear is that the Chinese have clear interests, and they are using their economic power to gain allies. Frankly, who can blame them? The better question is why the U.S. isn’t doing more of the same? While I certainly support our country’s unprecedented commitments to global public health and HIV/AIDS in particular, as Princeton Lyman has argued, this strategy has the potential to leave the U.S. vulnerable to high criticism if we fail to keep people on treatment, and may lead to the aphorism, “no good deed goes unpunished.” Why is the U.S. not doing more to promote trade and investment — the types of things that win the hearts and minds of citizens and leaders alike — in South Africa? South Africa has already joined Russia and China in the BRICS (also India and Brazil) group, and the fast growing developing economies are finding that they don’t need us very much any more. Given the billions and billions we are spending on military missions in other countries, where we have no clear strategic allies or well developed end games, I can’t believe that some of those dollars wouldn’t be better spent promoting investment in South Africa.