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Transitions and the politics of national sovereignty


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Transitions and the politics of national sovereignty

18th August 2023

By: Saliem Fakir


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One of my favourite childhood authors was the science fiction writer Arthur C Clarke, the author of 2001 Space Odyssey – which was later turned into a movie – who wrote: “For every expert, there is an equal and opposite expert.”

What I write in this column always has the risk of being challenged. In any case, this is an expectation one should have, as writing will always invite opposing views. That’s the point, anyway.


Globally, the discourse around the energy transition is intensifying and there is a surge in investments to catch up on lost time. The increase in investments is led by advanced economies through initiatives such as the European Union’s Green Deal and the US’s Inflation Reduction Act. China also has a goal to be carbon neutral by 2060. However, into these grand transition schemes has crept geopolitical competition – the green sector is not immune from these developments.

We are now having to build pathways for two transitions: the first is the scaling of solutions for reducing greenhouse gases that can cool the Earth down and the second ways and means to adapt to changing weather patterns and extreme events. We need greater global cooperation on both fronts but geopolitical fractures may bend the arc of cooperation towards the West or the East. This is a friction that will not disappear but will intensify as we move full throttle with transition processes.


The transition discourse has a distinct Western flavour to it but, ironically, the ability to manufacture on a large scale and lead the technology solutions to get to net-zero targets is dominated by China. China’s approach has been to use its varied capabilities and domestic demand to ramp up the production of solar photovoltaic (PV) components, wind energy generation components, electric vehicles, storage technologies and now green hydrogen.

This dominance extends to other parts of the value chain of clean technology production, including control over critical minerals, which is viewed with concern by Western governments, which are not comfortable with being too dependent on China. There is a background to this: for example, the US used to be a dominant player in solar technologies and rare earth production but offshoring transferred this dominance to China.

Chinese capacities were aided and abetted by Western decision-makers and the business elite to take advantage of the new Chinese situation following the reforms of Deng Xiaoping. The sudden anti-Chinese sentiment is contradicted by this early embrace of China and its model of State capitalism. The consequence is that China’s capacity manifests in many areas, extending beyond clean technologies to sectors such as telecommunications, artificial intelligence and space technologies, besides many others.

Access to technology and much cheaper sources of finance will determine the outcomes of the transition process for countries seeking cost-effective outcomes. In any case, the surge in demand for solar PV panels continues to be reliant on Chinese production. South African Electricity Minister Kgosientsho Ramokgopa recently made a special trip to China to appeal to that country’s government to increase supply. China was, in effect, the only country to go to for cheaper solar PV components.

On the other hand, Just Energy Transition Partnerships (JETPs) are being led by members of the G7, which have pledged their money, but it is still to be seen if these players will be happy with using Chinese firms and technology to deliver JETP outcomes using their finance.

At this juncture, recipients of transition finance may find themselves in the midst of a tussle between West and East – both in choices over technology and finance. This will be more so if the rules of the game change and impinge on how sovereign States – on the receiving end of new carbon trade rules – react to these impositions, as is the case with the Carbon Border Tax Adjustment Mechanisms (CBAMs).

The CBAMs are seen as an attempt at a universal decarbonisation stick to discipline non-member States of a trade bloc to conform to the bloc’s wishes without the prior informed consent of the country that is expected to comply if it wants to continue to export its goods to the bloc.

Nonetheless, the West has to be careful that the transition mechanisms that it seeks to foster are done with the cooperation, and at the behest, of other sovereign States. There is already a feeling, certainly in my own country, that foreign ‘impositions’ in various forms are aimed at upping the pressure and have led to a pro-coal Minister suggesting that South Africa is being “encircled”, which is encumbering the sovereignty of the country. Antagonism towards transition processes will intensify if countries pushing for net-zero goals themselves seem to say one thing in international forums and do something else in practice.

We will have to be realistic: transition processes, especially in developing and emerging economies, will be shaped by this arc of West and East competition in global foreign relations. Global relations are already coloured by multipolarity, and different spheres of influence are impinging on how sovereign States align or seek to be autonomous in a context where traditional powers, seeking to retain their advantage, will seek to shape sovereign choices through different tools, either by cornering, imposing relational choices via edicts, incentives or outright hostility.

One way to stay ahead of the game is to not act alone, especially if you have glaring asymmetries between yourself and a more powerful State, but to channel and secure interests through coalitions. For South Africa, some of those coalitions have to be built within a pan-African context or with other non-aligned States in emerging economies.

Sovereignty is more likely to be lost by taking sides. Astute sovereignty is to navigate an already difficult terrain and find the space that best suits the interests of a country.


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