Author: Scarlett Cornelissen.
Japan's economic and political relationship with South Africa has been characterised historically by ambiguity. Throughout the twentieth century, economic ties were underpinned by mercantilist and strategic considerations. During apartheid, this placed Japan in an uneasy position as it sought to balance a relationship of expediency with wider foreign policy objectives in the rest of Africa and beyond. The demise of apartheid created the space for new forms of engagement centred on the pursuit of cognate goals. This has seen the intensification and deepening of economic ties in particular. Yet relations, especially at the political and diplomatic levels, have also been more complex than anticipated, and in recent years, the rise in Africa of other players from Asia and the Global South has had a bearing on South Africa–Japan ties. In this paper, it is argued that two related dynamics pivoting on policy elites’ changing conceptions (or self-view) of the nature of the state they are running and its place in the wider world order help explain the post-apartheid evolution of the South Africa–Japan relationship. First, there has been an apparent shift in South African foreign policy elites’ self-view, mediated by a changing systemic context. The development and manifestation over time of a stronger Global South self-conception in South African foreign policy, fashioned in juxtaposition to what have been considered in the past key Global North relationships, had direct consequences for South Africa–Japan ties. Second, meso- and micro-level dynamics – the role of the general operations in the diplomatic (i.e. bureaucratic) arena, and the personalities and shifting political preferences of individual executive leaders – had major impacts on how South Africa engaged with Japan in the past two decades.