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Image The most important legacy of the Copenhagen climate change summit has been the creation of BASIC and a fundamental shift in the power of emerging nations and Africa, says John Battersby.

The Copenhagen climate change summit will be debated for a long time but its most important legacy could be the emergence of a new G5 group of nations to accelerate global consensus on key issues such as climate change, poverty, resource management, trade and development.

The new grouping that clinched a last-minute compromise is made up of the country that still ranks as the world's largest economy – the United States – supported by the key high-growth and developing markets – China, India, Brazil and South Africa representing the African continent.

What was clear from the Copenhagen encounter was the President Barack Obama needed President Jacob Zuma to reach a compromise with Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao to find a balance between the need to cut harmful emissions and the need to compensate developing nations for constraints placed on their economic growth potential.

BASIC – A Major Force for Global Stability

The principle that both China and the US now need South Africa as a go-between to ease consensus on pressing global sustainability issues could point to a new and crucial global role for South Africa.

While Bricsa – Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa – has become part of the so-called "emerging market" lexicon, the BASIC group could act as a deal-maker for the G20 which has largely replaced the G8, the traditional broker of global economic power.

The BASIC group could also act as a major force for global stability as the shift of economic power from West to East and from North to South gains momentum and tests the limits of geo-political stability as the global order enters a period of fundamental change.

The BASIC group could act as a deal-maker for the G20 which has largely replaced the G8, the traditional broker of global economic power.

While all the parties involved in the Copenhagen consensus have reservations about the outcome, all are in agreement that the last-minute consensus was a far preferable outcome to a total collapse which was a real possibility.

The non-binding compromise – to set 2% as the ceiling for temperature rise and the linking of developing and industrialised countries in committing themselves to cuts in emissions between 25% and 40% with an international monitoring mechanism – is a framework to build on.

There was also a broad endorsement of the target of a $100-bn fund by 2020 to compensate the developing countries for limiting emissions thus placing constraints on their economic development.

Africa: The Last Frontier of the Global Economy?

But the real significance of Copenhagen and the role of the BASIC group is not in the content of the compromise deal but rather in the way it was reached and the role of BASIC in achieving the consensus.

The Copenhagen deal would not have happened without the intervention of President Barack Obama but it could also not have happened without the support of China, India, Brazil and, particularly, South Africa.

In the aftermath of the summit, President Barack Obama commended President Jacob Zuma for his role in clinching the compromise by the BASIC group.

Copenhagen marked the beginning of a comprehensive global dialogue on how to transform the planet through rebalancing economic development and environment and dealing with interlinked poverty and underdevelopment.

It brought the interdependence of nation-states in a rapidly changing world into sharper focus than ever before.

While Africa is the poorest of the continental players it is also seen by many as the last frontier of the global economy and its future development and integration in the global economy is seen as a prerequisite for international sustainability.

After China with 1.3 billion people and India with 1.1 billion, Africa's 800 million represents the world's third largest market.

Perhaps, most significantly, Africa, which contributes by far the least to environmental degradation, stands to lose the most from the impact of climate change through increasing drought and famine and the relocation of tens of millions of people.

After China with 1.3 billion people and India with 1.1 billion, Africa's 800 million represents the world’s third largest market.

While Brazil and India are two democracies which have achieved high levels of integration in the global economy, China which has a rapidly growing trade, investment and aid relationship with Africa, has achieved unprecedented levels of industrialisation in three decades.

It has also lifted a staggering 400 million people out of poverty in the same period.

These factors make China and Africa crucial players in the quest for a more sustainable global order.

A Unique Opportunity to Take the Lead

It is against this backdrop that South Africa – and all nations of the world – need to engage in some deep introspection about the nature of the changing global order and how each fits.

While it is predicted that China will become the world’s largest economy by mid-century – if not earlier – Africa stands at the beginning of a new phase of development which is likely to transform the continent and the life of its people.

Image Looming largest is China about which the so-called Western world knows little in terms of its history and culture not to mention its language and systems and thought processes.

There are initiatives in Britain and other countries of the West to introduce Mandarin as a subject in schools and make available more information on Chinese culture and history. But one only has to scan the popular news media in Western countries to see that despite a far greater focus on China than ten or 20 years ago, the information is still limited, often patronising and seldom contextualised.

South Africa, as a key global player in BASIC and a leader on the African continent, has a unique opportunity to take a lead in fostering people-to-people contacts and promoting the kind of mutual understanding that leads to long-term partnerships.

There is an element of future shock in the pace at which the trade and investment relationship with China has grown. Last year, China overtook the United Kingdom, the US and Germany as South Africa's biggest trading partner measured in terms of two-way trade.

Yet South Africans don't know about China even a fraction of what they know of those countries which have been traditional trading partners – the US, UK and Germany.

Some advances have been made in recent times. Last year, it was announced that China would establish the headquarters of the China-Africa Development Fund in Johannesburg.

At a China-Africa summit in Cairo in November last year, there was a special focus on the role of African women in promoting Sino-African political and social dialogues and the creation of a Chinese-African Women's Forum sponsored by the All-China Women's Federation.

Image There were also significant moves to strengthen China-Africa legal exchange and to promote the role of private sector lawyers in driving intellectual and legal support for enhanced business activity on the continent.

Also last year, South Africa through the departments of Trade and Industry and International Relations conducted a series of missions to China and staged awareness-raising and cultural events in three major Chinese cities.

In the past five years, China has been hard at work establishing an international network of cultural and linguistic centres to promote the learning of the Chinese language and culture and creating a support system for Chinese teachers internationally.

These centres come under the umbrella of the Confucius Institute named after the great Chinese sage who lived in 2500 BC and elevated values of sincerity, justice, the centrality of the family, social harmony, the importance of education and governmental morality.

The national traits of the Chinese to put the interests of society before that of the individual, respect for the family, care for the aged and the propensity to save are all seen as products of Confucian ethics.

The first Confucius Institute abroad was established in Seoul in South Korea in November, 2004. Today there are 282 institutes worldwide including 41 in the US, 13 in Thailand and 10 each in the United Kingdom, Russia and South Korea, seven in Japan and Canada and five in Australia.

There are currently an estimated 40-million non-Chinese worldwide learning the Chinese language and the goal is to reach 100-million and to have 500 institutes by the end of 2010 and to have 1000 institutes by 2020.

The first Institute in South Africa was established at Stellenbosch University last year and is planning to hold a Sinology conference to promote the Chinese language and culture during the course of this year. (2010)

There are interesting parallels between the philosophy of Ubuntu - I am a person because of other people – and the Chinese elevation of the interests of society above those of the individual.


John Battersby is the UK Country Manager of the International Marketing Council of South Africa and a former editor of The Sunday Independent. He has twice visited China: in 2002 as a guest of the government of the Chinese government and in 2006 with the British organisation Leaders' Quest.

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