SA’s high-stakes role in global power shifts: Katzenellenbogen

In a world marked by escalating tensions and geopolitical rivalries, South Africa faces a pivotal decision amidst shifting global alliances. With conflicts in the Middle East, Ukraine, and the South China Sea looming large, South Africa’s alignment with China, Russia, and Iran poses challenges amid its economic ties with the West. This delicate balance could determine South Africa’s international standing and influence in an uncertain and potentially dangerous world order.

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By Jonathan Katzenellenbogen

The breakout of World War III might not be imminent, but there is a new Cold War marked by heightened tensions and a growing risk of global conflict.

Historians might yet write of our times and the conflicts in the Middle East, Ukraine, and the South China Sea as factors which accelerated or sparked the onset of global war.

These conflicts might be separate from each other now, but the US is on one side, and its main rivals, Iran, Russia, and China are on the other. Three countries, Iran in the Middle East, Russia in Ukraine and China in expanding its footprint across the South China Sea, are eager to test the West’s ability to support its allies across three theatres of conflict.

That means the three conflicts could quickly become connected to each other. The lines have already been drawn for a descent into a global war.

There were well-founded fears that the strikes exchanged between Israel and Iran over the past few weeks could have acted as the spark for a global conflict. After all, this was the first time that the two countries had exchanged direct blows. Through its proxies, Hamas in Gaza, Hezbollah in Lebanon, and the Houthis in Yemen, Iran has made the Israel-Hamas war into a regional one.

After Israel killed two Iranian generals in an attack on Tehran’s consulate in Damascus earlier this month, Iran retaliated with a massive missile and drone attack. If Israel had not had an adequate air defence system and allies to help it shoot down the onslaught, the result might have been devastating. Israel’s hit on Iran with a long-range missile in retaliation was intended more as a message to the effect that ‘we can hit remote sensitive sites with ease, so don’t test us’.

Neither country appears to have wanted to take its exchanges to the precipice, but there are bound to be future exchanges between the two that will continue to pose risks of a larger and wider war.

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No vision

The conflicts in Gaza, Ukraine and the South China Sea increasingly look like conflicts without end. There is no vision for what a settlement might look like in the Israel-Hamas war, and the situation in Ukraine resembles a frozen war. Confrontations in the South China Sea will not end any time soon, as Beijing pushes to extend its territorial waters.

Growing global tensions are shaping much else about the world. These have spurred a re-orientation of trade flows away from China and towards countries considered safe by the West. These tensions have also sparked a race between China and the US in artificial intelligence and in ensuring access to the rare earth minerals that are crucial to modern electronics.

Global tensions might also rise due to the impact of artificial intelligence on society. Artificial intelligence is a general-purpose technology that could affect vast areas of activity. We do not know what the impact will be, but it looks fairly certain that there will ultimately be widespread layoffs.

We also face slower global growth over the next five years. Last week, the International Monetary Fund forecast a marked medium-term slowdown in global economic growth prospects due to a slacking-off in productivity. Strong economic growth in the post-World War II era has been an important contributor to lifting billions out of poverty and helping create an environment of relative social stability across the world.

Slow growth and high unemployment could feed into a rise in populism and trade protectionism to defend jobs.

Mounting world rivalries, slowing growth and the possibly immense economic impact of technological change make for an uncertain and dangerous world.

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Future conflict

The lines have certainly been drawn for future conflict. For some time, the post-Cold War world has been divided into three groups: the West, those that stand against the West, and the Neutrals. The West consists of the US and its allies. Those who stand most forcefully against the West are China, Russia, Iran and North Korea. Those who claim neutrality are countries that include South Africa, Brazil, India and Vietnam, and most African countries.

Where the Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa (BRICS) grouping, a key foreign policy group for South Africa, fits in these global groupings is not really clear. BRICS members include the staunchly anti-western countries of China and Russia, as well as  India, which has a special place in the world, and a number of credibly neutral countries. In time the BRICS group might find itself divided between the more moderate and neutral countries and the anti-western axis.

Due to its immense population and fast rate of economic growth, India has far greater leeway than any other neutral country. While upholding its neutrality, it is still able to woo the West, who are keen to see it fully emerge as a counterweight to China in Asia.

If the BRICS split as a result of global conflict, on what side would South Africa fall − the really neutral or the anti-West?

Its record over the past year shows it might fall on the side of staunchly anti-western countries, rather than on the side of countries with a more moderate foreign policy like India.

By leaning towards China, Russia, and Iran, South Africa has chosen its side. Taking Israel to the International Court of Justice to face accusations of genocide in Gaza, hosting Hamas leaders, and conducting naval exercises with the Russian and Chinese are all signs that South Africa cannot claim neutrality. At a time of growing world tensions, that will make it difficult for us to position ourselves for an advantage.

Dangerous waters

In this world order, South Africa is treading in dangerous waters. Most of our economic ties are with the West, although China is our single largest export market. Rising tensions between the US and China have resulted in a strong push in western countries for ‘onshoring’ and ‘friend shoring’- bringing manufacturing facilities back home from China or seeing to it that they are placed in friendly countries.

So far, we have gained little from our close relations with China, Russia and Iran. Yet our friendly relations with the anti-western group increasingly shift us into a no-go zone for western investors, so we stand no chance of benefiting from friend shoring.

The talk is no longer about globalisation with low barriers to international trade and manufacturing where it makes most economic sense. Trade and investment flows are now increasingly determined by considerations of national security and therefore ‘whose side you’re on’.

South Africa could soon find itself out on a limb, with little international influence.

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This article was first published by Daily Friend and was republished with permission

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