All the attention South Africa is heaping on visiting Chinese President Xi Jinping appeared to have miffed Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi as Xi’s state visit and the BRICS Summit began on Tuesday, 22 August.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi refused to get off his aircraft at Waterkloof Air Force Base because the South African government had only sent a Cabinet minister to officially welcome him, officials said. By contrast, President Cyril Ramaphosa had personally been on the tarmac to greet Chinese President Xi Jinping when he arrived on Monday night.
Eventually, Ramaphosa despatched Deputy President Paul Mashatile from the Union Buildings formalities being held for Xi to dash to Waterkloof to welcome Modi.
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Prime Minister of India Narendra Modi at Waterkloof Air Force Base in Pretoria with deputy president Paul Mashatile on 22 August 2023. (Photo: Jacoline Schoonees / DIRCO)
Xi certainly dominated the day. For starters, he was granted an abbreviated state visit on the morning before the BRICS Summit began — his fourth state visit to South Africa. He has been welcomed to South Africa on state visits on the occasions of the two previous BRICS summits in this country, in 2013 and 2018, as well as when he visited South Africa to co-chair the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation with Ramaphosa in 2015.
Pretoria had hoped to tack a similar event for Modi on to this year’s BRICS Summit, but officials said that scheduling clashes precluded this.
In addition to the state visit, Ramaphosa also honoured Xi with the Order of South Africa, the country’s highest official award. And Ramaphosa and Xi will co-chair a special roundtable with the many African leaders who will attend the BRICS Summit for an outreach session with the BRICS leaders.
However, among all the honours, the pomp and the ceremony, Ramaphosa and Xi clearly also discussed some serious business — mainly focused on reducing South Africa’s massive trade deficit with China.
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Reporting back on his closed meeting with Xi at the Union Buildings, Ramaphosa said the two leaders had agreed to narrow the trade deficit, including by increasing the access of South African products to the Chinese market.
He welcomed the fact that China had recently reopened its imports of SA beef — which had been blocked because of foot-and-mouth disease — and on Tuesday the two governments signed an agreement to allow the export of South African avocados to China.
This was one of 11 agreements signed, which covered a wide range of activities. One of the agreements was for China to donate energy equipment to South Africa to help it reduce load shedding.
According to United Nations Comtrade figures, SA had a $12.51-billion trade deficit with China in 2022, although China’s top African diplomat, Wu Peng, told journalists on Tuesday that if trade statistics were correctly calculated, it was China that actually had the deficit, of some $8-billion. He explained that this was because many of South Africa’s exports of gold and diamonds to China were routed through third countries.
He added that as long as overall trade between the two countries was growing rapidly, deficits and surpluses did not matter. He noted that total trade between the two countries in the first half of the year was $28.3-billion.
UN Security Council
Ramaphosa also appeared to say that China had shifted its position and was now ready to support Africa’s bid for a permanent presence on the United Nations Security Council.
He said after his meeting with Xi that they had agreed on the need for the reform of institutions of global governance, notably the United Nations Security Council. They had “agreed that the continent of Africa that remains excluded from this very august and important body of the world should indeed be given a voice in the United Nations Security Council”.
This appeared to hint that the Chinese leader was ready to support a permanent presence. Africa already has a temporary presence in the form of three non-permanent two-year seats which rotate among the continent’s 54 countries.
So it would not be news for Ramaphosa to announce that Xi was now supporting a non-permanent African presence on the apex body of global government.
The news would be if China was now prepared to back a permanent seat or more than one seat on an expanded Security Council. So far, neither China nor Russia, the two members of BRICS which have permanent seats on the UN Security Council, have publicly supported the campaigns for permanent seats of the other three BRICS members, South Africa, Brazil and India.
This is an anomaly, since one of the core reasons for the existence of BRICS is to increase the representivity of the “Global South” in world government.
But Ramaphosa’s remarks on Tuesday suggest that Russia and China might be shifting. A South African official said the BRICS leaders would discuss this during their retreat session on Tuesday night.
The summit continues on Wednesday and Thursday. DM