A senior South African government official on Thursday said China is an important partner of his country and that bilateral relations have reached a new high.

Manelisi Genge, chief director of East Asia and Oceania in South Africa’s Department of International Relations and Cooperation, said this at an event to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the diplomatic relations between the two countries.

“The South Africa-China diplomatic relations have reached a milestone. China has become a vibrant and important partner for our country’s development. China is now one of the best trading partners,” said Genge.

“We continue to make strides in political, economic and cultural relations with China,” said Genge at the “20 Years of South Africa-China Engagements: Past, Present and Future Dialogue” at the University of the Witwatersrand.

Genge said South Africa has realized the need to make China one of its partners barely four years after the country’s independence and the country does not regret the move. China and South Africa established diplomatic relations on Jan. 1, 1998.

In 2010, the China-South Africa relationship was upgraded to a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership. Trade between the two countries increased from 17 billion U.S. dollars in 2012 to 22.5 billion dollars in 2013. The increase reached 25 billion dollars in 2016, Genge said.

“In August 2017, South Africa became the first in the continent to export beef to China. The Chinese government gives scholarships to 30 South Africans every year,” he said.

People-to-people relations between the two countries got a boost in 2017. Genge said the government wants to continue to strengthen exchanges in all sectors including academia and civil society.

“We have hundreds of students in China. Sending these students is an investment for us. We expect them to learn business acumen, the culture of doing business, disciple and competence,” he said.

He said that the relations with China have enabled the country to better address key priority areas like fighting poverty, unemployment and inequality.

Meanwhile, Kobus van der Wath, managing director of The Beijing Axis, an international advisory and procurement firm, said that while relations between the two countries have strengthened in the past years, more still needs to be done to make full use of the potential of the bilateral partnership.

“The opportunities are not fully appreciated in South Africa … South Africa needs to tap the huge and dynamic Chinese market.”

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