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The evolution of China-South Africa relations : a constructivist interpretation.

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The rise of China in the international system and its involvement in Africa has attracted a lot of attention and speculation. Western perceptions of China’s involvement in Africa are fraught with concerns that a more powerful, undemocratic China will not compel odious African governments to heed Western calls for better governance. China’s foreign policy of “non-interference” in domestic affairs has been criticised as China’s ploy to perpetuate its poor record of human rights; and provide alternatives to countries that are under Western sanctions. Another concern is that China is challenging Western economic dominance in Africa. Thus, the West regards China’s incursions into Africa with suspicion and paranoia. The wide use of realism to explain international relations is hugely responsible for the pessimistic attitude towards the rise of China. In realist perspectives, the rise of China will unavoidably disrupt the current international order and portend possible disaster for other international actors. This research uses constructivism, a relatively underutilized theory of international relations, to analyse relations between China and South Africa. The reasons for this undertaking are manifold. First, by looking at relations between the two countries, the research shows that nations relate according to specific social contexts, from which stem shared identities and interests. Second, the research seeks to illustrate, by dividing Sino-South African relations into three epochs, that China and South Africa have visibly changed their identities and interests since the mid-twentieth century. This shows that, contrary to realism, national identities and interests are subject to change. Third, the fact that China and South Africa perceive each other as allies in the current international system reinforces the constructivist claim that when identities and interests between actors in the international system correlate, the formation of genuine cooperation, community and international interests becomes possible. This is a further departure from realism which claims that cooperation among “self-interested” actors is difficult if not impossible to achieve. Furthermore, much literature about China looks at China as a country with an enduring and unchangeable identity. It is hoped that through the use of constructivism, this notion will be put to credible scrutiny. The research emphasizes the fact that South Africa should not be fanatic in its embrace of China as a kindred spirit of the global South and a better alternative to Western countries. The paranoia of the West is as misplaced as African naiveté in dealing with China. This caveat will also prove that constructivism is not an idealistic approach to international relations. It concedes the fact that cooperation and mutual development among nations can be hard to attain when social relations provide no conducive environment for their nurturance.


M. Soc. Sc. University of KwaZulu-Natal, Pietermaritzburg 2013.


China--Foreign relations--South Africa., South Africa--Foreign relations--South Africa., Theses--Politics.