South African President Jacob Zuma ended his visit to China Thursday, signing trade agreements relating to minerals, the environment and transportation.

Mr. Zuma reportedly was accompanied by 17 cabinet ministers and about 300 business people.

Lots of potential

Jennifer Cooke, director of the Africa Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, says, says South Africa?s relationship with China holds much promise.

Jennifer Cooke, Director Africa Program, Center fo
Jennifer Cooke, Director Africa Program, Center for Strategic and International Studies

?Potentially it?s tremendously important.  Already they (China) are a fairly major investment in South Africa.  The prospect of increased investment, trade, technical transfer and so forth and, really, political support as well, I think, loom very large,? she says.

Cooke says Mr. Zuma has ?made a fairly aggressive play to win that kind of a strategic partnership.?

What?s in it for China?

?South Africa,? she says, ?is one of the best and largest performing economies in Africa.  And China has made big plays within Africa more broadly,? she says.

However, it?s not an equal relationship.

?I think the relationship probably matters more for South Africa than for China.  But China has been making big strides in trying to win commercial partners, political partners and strengthen cultural ties with a number of states in Africa,? she says.

South Africa is an attractive trading partner for China, says Cooke, because its economy helps boost all of Southern Africa. ?They?re kind of a pillar state for China to partner with.?


The major emerging economies ? Brazil, Russia, India and China ? have formed a bloc known as BRIC.  Representatives from those countries have been invited to recent G8 summits, as has South Africa.  But is South Africa strong enough to add an ?S? to BRIC?

?It?s got a ways to go,? says Cooke, ?but it certainly aspires to that status?.  But has so many internal problems in terms of really this dual economy of a very sophisticated economy on the one hand, but then a very large informal economy, where unemployment is extremely high ? 20 to 30 percent ? poverty, really a crumbling education system and so forth.?

However, Cooke says that South Africa?s interests may not always align with those of BRIC.

?It may find it doesn?t want to be clumped with that group in certain circumstances.  For example in global trade agreements, China is in such a very different position than South Africa is in terms of its interests in the global trade regime.  South Africa might ally more in that instance with those of its African neighbors,? she says.

Cooke says South Africa has to play its alliances ?carefully? and won?t want to be ?locked in? to one particular grouping.

Long term view

Analysts say China, the world?s second largest economy, takes a long term view when investing in Africa, rather than looking for an immediate return.

?First it looks for resources, whether energy resources or mineral resources.  But it also looks for markets.  It looks for investment opportunities?areas, for example, of employment for Chinese workers.  On many of the big infrastructure projects they?re investing in in Africa, it?s Chinese labor that does much of the work there,? she says.

She adds, ?Ultimately, they do have this long, patient plan of building gradually commercial and diplomatic relationships that they believe I think over the long term will pay off both economically and politically.?