As 24 Western countries expel 122 Russian diplomats and counting, South Africa has remained noticeably silent, while our Brics partner, China, has called on the West to abandon its confrontation with Russia and abide by international law and refrain from any paradoxical actions.
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South Africa’s other Brics partners, Brazil and India, have also attempted to steer clear of the raging controversy by not pronouncing on the matter.
South Africa, Brazil and India can afford to maintain their neutrality on this particular matter, seeing it is far removed from the regions of the south, although in the event of a new cold war emerging between East and West, things may get more complicated.
The retaliatory measures taken by Western countries is not merely about the assumed Russian poisoning of Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia, in Salisbury, UK, but a reaction to a broader set of Russian actions in recent years that have been perceived by the West as aggressive and destabilising.
Preceding the Skripal incident was Russian President Vladimir Putin’s announcement in his State of the Nation Address on March 1 that Russia had developed a new regime of nuclear weapons far superior to those of the West, weapons that could evade US and Nato defences.
Then there are the lingering tensions with the West relating to Russia’s military involvement in Syria on the side of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, as well as Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the downing of Malaysian flight MH17 in 2014.
But if a new cold war is on the cards, it will not be reminiscent of the Cold War that followed World War II, which centred on the grand ideological battle between communism and capitalism, and the race to export those ideological systems abroad.
The future is likely to bring a new battle for hegemony, using markets, strategic resources and military superiority to protect shipping lanes and zones of influence.
Even in the context of the post-World War II Cold War, the developing South attempted to maintain its neutrality through the non-aligned movement and it will likely do so again.
But if tensions between East and West escalate exponentially and the world again becomes divided into camps and alliances, it would seem that South Africa has already located itself squarely on the side of Russia and China within global geopolitics.
Given the rise of China to a position of a global economic superpower that has already surpassed the US, juxtaposed against a largely stagnant Europe, South Africa has aligned itself with the axis of greater economic promise. India and Brazil are also emerging powers, which are recognised as having increasing global influence.
But a new cold war may require South Africa, India and Brazil to take more defined positions on controversial issues and be more vocal in defending their Brics partners.
This will ultimately put them in a difficult position, given that Europe and the US remain significant trading partners of all three countries.
The question will then become whether Brics is really more than an economic partnership and whether India under Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s stewardship will be prepared to offend their American allies.
It may also further expose the fissures in Indo-Chinese relations that have emerged with more frequency of late.
For now it has not reached that point. In the case of the Skripal controversy, the US has explicitly assured its ally, India, that it does not expect the current controversy to affect India’s strong relations with Russia.
The US has not extended any such assurances to South Africa, but then again South Africa does not seem to feature on the US foreign policy radar screen, considering there has been no US ambassador to South Africa since President Donald Trump entered office.
All South Africa can do for the moment is to issue a strong official statement that matters of international dispute, such as the Skripal incident, be dealt with in the context of existing multilateral forums such as the UN Security Council, and not unilaterally.
Cuba has made an important point, that Western nations’ unilateral response to the incident posed a threat to international stability.
Russia has already promised to retaliate beyond its expulsion of 23 British diplomats and the measures it takes will escalate the diplomatic crisis even further.
The centrality of the UN in dealing with matters of international peace and security is very much at stake.
* Ebrahim is Independent Media’s Foreign Editor.
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