Tshwane - A trip to Taipei by Tshwane Mayor Solly Msimanga, which defied SA’s national policy on China, was in fact a positive move toward investment opportunities, an international relations professor said on Wednesday.
"This might just be what South Africa needs to work around the non-recognition questions [around Taiwan]," said University of Pretoria Professor Siphamandla Zondi.
"This could encourage… other cities to follow suit and explore great opportunities in Taipei," he said.
Msimanga’s decision to embark on the Taiwanese trip during the Christmas period was harshly criticised by the department of international relations and co-operation, which said that it was in conflict with South Africa’s recognition of the One China policy.
According to this, South Africa recognises Beijing as the sole legal government in China.
Furthermore, as per this policy, Taiwan is considered a part of China.
One China policy
Msimanga’s spokesperson, Samkelo Mgobozi, said the department’s concerns about the trip, which aims to explore investment opportunities, were "short-sighted".
"The Executive Mayor of Tshwane believes that all potential opportunities for trade and investment must be diligently interrogated," said Mgobozi.
However, international relations department spokesperson Clayson Monyela said the trip was ill-advised, as China was South Africa’s biggest trading partner in the world.
"You can’t have a sphere of government ignoring the policy of the national government; it may cause a diplomatic problem."
"China does not take kindly to [the One China policy] being breached by anyone..."
Nevertheless, on Wednesday, Zondi said that while Msimanga’s visit to Taiwan "may raise eyebrows", in fact, "the two countries actually maintain significant, but non-formal, relations conducted through liaison offices in Tshwane and Taipei".
He said these offices - although they did not have the full status of one - operated as "virtual embassies" in promoting and supporting economic trade, investment, tourism, cultural, scientific, technological, educational, research and cultural exchanges.
"They just lack the responsibility for the state affairs, being mainly governmental, political and security relations."
Zondi said that while provinces and cities under ANC governmental structures seemed to have not "boldly" used non-formal strategies to engage with Taiwan, "nothing prevents them from building such relations as long as they don't according political diplomatic status to Taiwan".
There might be two reasons as to why they did not go this route.
'Lack of adventure'
Firstly, suggested Zondi, the ANC sub-national governments might worry that high level delegations could be misconstrued as undermining diplomatic relations with China.
"Secondly, it might be just lack of adventure and awareness of precious opportunities for cities and provinces in relating with Taiwan."
He said that party politics would have been a factor in why Tshwane broke away from this trend.
"The DA-controlled Tshwane does not feel obliged to protect relations at national level governed by the ANC."
Zondi said there were a number of possible outcomes from Msimanga’s trip.
The municipality would be able to access major opportunities by liaising with Taipei and Taiwan, which are leaders in science parks, as well as dynamic in terms of industrial and city development, research and education.
He said the trip could also enhance Tshwane’s role in “paradiplomacy” - which was the engagement of smaller entities of government such as municipalities - as opposed to relations on a national level.
"In the current phrase of globalisation, cities have become nodes of economic growth and development."
Tshwane was in a particularly advantageous position, suggested Zondi.
"It hosts one of the largest seats of diplomatic missions in the world and has a large number of international organisations, including the United Nations, represented in the city.
"It can enhance this by boldly building relations with those who have used paradiplomacy with success, such as Taiwan."
Ultimately, though, said Zondi, the future success of such engagement with Taiwan would depend on the true intention behind the trip.
"If it is not simply to make a political statement, it can have positive effects on the city in the long run."