Editorial: The dance of diplomacy

There can be no doubt that the chill that began to set in during the Bush and Mbeki years has deepened.

Anxious to court the emerging powers of Asia and led by a political class steeped in anti-Western rhetoric, South Africa found numerous occasions to demonstrate its "independence": over United Nations Security Council action on Iran, a settlement in Côte d'Ivoire, Libya, intervention in Syria. The US fumed and sought a deeper relationship with countries capable of acting as regional and continental counterweights, notably Nigeria and Kenya.

It is easy – too easy – to view this friction as a straightforward expression of the global struggle for influence between a US-led West and a China-led East, with the Zuma government lining up in the proxy battle for Africa behind Beijing. But the truth is more complicated.

South Africa is deeply anxious about the character of its trade relationship with China. We sell them things we have dug out of the ground and they sell us things they have made, as President Jacob Zuma has publicly complained. The US buys value-added manufactures, which are not only under pressure from slack demand in Europe, but also central to our government's economic plans. As we report this week, cars and vehicle components, which are seen in Pretoria as the standout industrial policy success of the past decade, are a particularly important part of the basket of exports to the US.

Make no mistake, the trade preferences of the Africa Growth and Opportunity Act, which offers tariff-free access to US markets, are deeply important to South Africa and lobbying to extend them beyond their planned 2015 expiry is intense.

South Africa needs a grown-up relationship with the US, for both economic and geopolitical reasons. That means less angry rhetoric, a clearer articulation of how our human rights values indeed extend beyond our borders, and a renewed focus on trade.

Clinton's visit looks like a start.

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