OPINION: A tricky game of geopolitical deceit marred US Secretary of State Blinken’s African charm offensive

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US Secretary of State Antony Blinken was left in no doubt about South Africa’s foreign policy position on its unwavering independence first articulated by former late President Nelson Mandela in the early days of our democracy.

Madiba, in a no-nonsense stance aimed at the US and the West, stressed that no one in world politics other than South Africa’s people alone has the authority to determine Pretoria’s allies or foes.

He was reacting angrily to the dismay in the West that South Africa (SA) was pursuing convivial relations with Palestine, Cuba, China and Russia, among the others.

This week Dr Naledi Pandor, the Minister of the Department of International Relations and Cooperation (DIRCO), left Secretary Blinken in no doubt about the continued pursuit of Madiba’s foreign policy stance. Blinken was in SA to engage in a high-level “strategic dialogue” with his counterpart and to also announce the US strategy toward Sub-Saharan Africa. Pandor emphasised that SA would continue its non-aligned position amid the ensuing Ukraine conflict. This means that any expectation of SA condemning Russia was misplaced.

Instead, the pursuit of dialogue aimed at ending the conflict, and subsequently addressing the causal factors that led to the outbreak of the war, need to be addressed amicably.

Pandor said, “Firstly, on the matter of Russia and Ukraine, there is no one in South Africa who supports war. We’ve made that very clear. And we have said that we wish to see intensified efforts at increased diplomacy utilizing the good offices of the United Nations, particularly the secretary-general and other leaders who may be of weight in terms of persuading the interlocutors to come around a table and negotiate a settlement of this awful conflict.”

Blinken was in SA to bolster the bilateral relations and also to reboot US-Africa relations through his visit to the DRC and Rwanda, after departing SA.

During a Q&A after the media briefing at the DIRCO headquarters in Pretoria, Blinken irked the Chinese embassy in SA when he remarked that China’s response to the much-maligned Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan – a territory of China – was an over-reaction. China has since suspended its cooperation with the US at various levels, including climate change.

Pelosi, the Speaker of the US House of Representatives, had ignored behind-the-scenes plea by President Joe Biden to scratch out Taiwan in her scheduled Asian tour.

President Biden’s plea was in the interest of the cordial China-US relations. His plea also followed more than two-hours of a telephonic meeting between China’s President Xi Jinping, during which Beijing warned that Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan would mark the crossing of a red line.

Apparently, Congress has a degree of autonomy from the White House, hence Pelosi carried on with her original itinerary that included the controversial visit to Taiwan.

The visit was in clear contravention of the universally recognised One China Policy, with Taiwan as part of China. Pelosi’s utterances whilst in Taiwan also appear to dare Beijing in their own backyard when she said “the US will stick with Taiwan” and never allow the island to be isolated by China.

A US statement on the day of Pelosi’s controversial Taiwan visit declared that “America would not be intimidated by China”.

Through it all, the US posture was not about cementing US-China’s cordial relations, historically tied by former US President Jimmy Carter in 1979 when he committed his country to the recognition of One China Policy.

The diametrically opposed approach of both Pelosi and President Biden to China is a clear reflection of America’s cantankerous foreign – on the strength of the latest dose of evidence. This unpredictability is a threat to geopolitical stability and world peace.

Now Pelosi has departed Taiwan, leaving the island alone and trembling at China’s response of unprecedented military drills in the Taiwan Strait.

The US-China relations are now at their lowest in many years. Pelosi has single-handedly caused unnecessary strain in the bilateral relations between the world’s two biggest economies.

Until the visit by Pelosi, whom the bulk of the Chinese media has dubbed “Hurricane Pelosi”, the US foreign policy clearly stated: “The people of the US will maintain cultural, commercial and other unofficial relations with the people of Taiwan.”

Now, the entire Asian region is on a precipice, thanks to Pelosi’s egregious provocation.

Shortly after Pelosi’s departure from Taiwan, China announced that the country’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) will hold live military drills around Taiwan, which continues till today after they were extended.

Beijing has further announced that the country has unleashed sanctions on Pelosi and her immediate family.

A statement from China’s foreign ministry noted that “in disregard to China’s grave concerns and firm opposition, Pelosi insisted on visiting Taiwan, which constitutes a gross interference in China’s internal affairs”.

The foreign ministry’s statement further read: “It (Pelosi’s visit) gravely undermines China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, seriously tramples on the one-China principle, and severely threatens peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait.”

To be quite honest, China did not want, nor wish to find itself in such a spot of bother. Hence, the lengthy telephonic meeting initiated by President Xi in an attempt to avert a crisis through engagement with his US counterpart.

Pelosi, aged 82, might have departed Taiwan in haste, but the political debris she’s left behind will be hard to tidy up.  The controversial, nay, unwanted visit has, if anything, ratchet up tension between Beijing and Washington. There is a saying that when two elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers.

The rest of the international community – far away from the Taiwan Strait, should  get ready for it is destined to be the “grass” that suffers when the world’s biggest economy and the world’s biggest emerging economy squares up.

Pelosi’s shenanigans in no way bear the signs of building or stabilizing the China-US relations. The opposite is the reality.

Robert Daly, director of the Kissinger Institute on China and the US at the Wilson Centre in the US, expressed concern that Pelosi’s sneaky visit to Taiwan and her unfathomable antics bring no benefits whatsoever to the Biden administration.

“To me,” Daly argued in the aftermath of Pelosi’s dust, “that is not strategic, it’s not rational, it’s not smart, and it’s not being driven by national security expertise or thinking.”

Some geopolitical scholars, including Professor Shelly Rigger of the political science faculty at the Davidson College, forecast a much more tedious and arduous road ahead in China-US relations.

Pelosi, in a flagrant disregard for her country’s own foreign policy position, bragged during her brief Taiwan escapade: “Our delegation came here to deliver an unequivocal message: America stands with Taiwan,” she said. Yet the truth is her remarks have nothing to do with democracy. It is more about China’s remarkable emergence and its growing geopolitical influence, particularly across the global South.

Taiwan’s separatist forces would predictably be buoyed by the visit, and Pelosi’s subsequent utterances. But Taiwan will never secede from mainland China. No, not on the watch of the more than 1.4 billion Chinese people who regard Taiwan as part of one China.

As countermeasures to Pelosi’s provocation Beijing also unleashed selective sanctions against Taiwan’s self- governing territory among which, are restrictions on imports and exports.

Ni Yongjie, vice president of the Shanghai Institute of Taiwan Studies, accused Pelosi of trying to use Taiwan “as a chess piece, to try and isolate the island from the mainland”.

Yongjie further argued Pelosi’s visit would only serve the interests of her Democratic Party during mid-term elections scheduled for November. “She wants to use this visit to cater for the anti-China populism in the United States and maintain her position as the House of Representatives Speaker,” said Yongjie.

The Pelosi hurricane is already driving a wedge between international power blocs. A G7 communique sharply questioned China’s military exercises, prompting a harsh rebuke from Beijing.

Secretary Blinken claimed that the US is not in Africa “to outdo anyone”. But a new legislation that would oblige Washington to punish African governments that abet Russian “malign” activities on the continent is in the offing.

The US seem to have resuscitated former President George W Bush’s doctrine, which emphasised the notion that, “if you are not with us, you are against us”.

World peace requires honest diplomacy. Geopolitical games of dishonesty and deceit are a recipe for global instability as well as a major setback to shared development.