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Will South Africa’s economic diplomacy in Southeast Asia strengthen under President Ramaphosa?

SAecondipSouth Africa’s bilateral relations with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) member states has always been described as of significance in navigating South Africa’s interests in the Global South. More important, the ASEAN economic bloc is one of the priority markets for South Africa’s Export Market Diversification Strategy.

So far trade in goods between South Africa and ASEAN is favourable to ASEAN, for example South Africa’s exports to ASEAN between 2014 and 2016 dropped from US$3.4 billion in 2014, to US$2.4 billion in 2015 and US$2.2 billion in 2016. On the other hand South Africa imported more from ASEAN in the same period, with US$6.9 billion in 2014, to US$5.4 billion in 2015 and US$4.9 billion in 2016.

What is needed from South Africa is to ensure that there are more formal institutional links, technical co-operation, the protection of regional stability and trade relations on the basis of reciprocity in its relations with the ASEAN community.

This was echoed by the Deputy Minister of Trade and Industry, Mr Bulelani Magwanishe in the ASEAN-Africa Business Forum that was held in 2017 in Sandton. The business forum was one of the initiatives attempting to increase ASEAN and Africa’s economic diplomacy by promoting business between the two regions.

With the newly elected President of South Africa, Cyril Ramaphosa promising to improve economic growth by increasing business confidence, wooing investors and expanding trade, which will translate into job creation and poverty reduction, ASEAN is also one of the regions that South Africa needs to navigate increasingly and have a strategic approach that will not only support South Africa’s business opportunities but also pave way for the promotion of inter-regional economic diplomacy between SADC and ASEAN.

At the same time this could be a start in the quest to institutionalize the New Asian-African Strategic Partnership (NAASP) as a driver of Asia-Africa relations. The creation of the NAASP was initiated in the 2005 Asia-Africa Conference golden jubilee to create institutional links and advances cooperation between the two continents, however NAASP is currently not operational. Thus, a closer economic engagement between ASEAN and SADC, will not only help to solidify relations between the regions, it also has the potential to boost trade between Africa and Asia.

The groundwork has already been started to channel South Africa’s economic interests in the ASEAN region, since 2013 South Africa has been active in promoting its foreign policy tracks in bilateral meetings with the ASEAN member states to strengthen relations. What needs to be done by President Ramaphosa’s government is to give necessary attention to how South Africa can better identify opportunities in the Southeast Asia region such as the role of state-owned enterprises in advancing economic growth and national developmental objectives. 

ASEAN is also stepping up its efforts to boost bilateral trade relations and investment with South Africa. South Africa, together with Nigeria and Egypt have the largest import markets in Africa for ASEAN goods, and  currently there are more than 300 companies from ASEAN operating in Africa, with trade growing at 15% between ASEAN and Africa since 1989.

Thus, to ensure a concrete strategy and to solidify South Africa’s economic diplomacy in the ASEAN region, South Africa must seek for the formalisation of relations with the ASEAN community, to be included in the ASEAN external relations which is the formal status of Dialogue Partner, Sectoral Dialogue Partner, or Development Partner with ASEAN. The formalisation for relations with ASEAN, as I suggested 3 years ago in ‘the prospects of South Africa’s engagement with ASEAN countries’ will enable the South African government to build a united and a strategic approach on what constitutes South African interests in the Southeast Asia region.

Mr. Kenny Dlamini holds a BA Hons in Political & International Studies from Rhodes University and is a research officer at the Institute for Global Dialogue associated with UNISA. His views do not necessarily reflect those of the IGD

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