South Africa’s naval exercise with Russia, China raises alarm

South Africa will launch a joint naval exercise with Russia and China on February 17, 2023, a move it is calling routine but that has sparked domestic criticism and fears the drills will endanger important relations with Western partners. [Twitter]

South Africa was scheduled to begin a joint naval exercise with Russia and China on Friday (17 February), a move that has sparked domestic criticism and fears that the drills will jeopardize important relations with Western partners.

World powers are fighting for power in Africa at a time when tensions around the world are getting worse because of the war in Ukraine and China’s increasingly aggressive behavior toward Taiwan.

Some African nations are steadfastly refusing to take sides as they seek to benefit from the diplomatic tug-of-war. But analysts said hosting the 10-day Mosi II exercise, which coincides with the one-year anniversary of Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine on February 24, is a risky strategy.

“These exercises are going to be a lightning rod,” said Steven Gruzd, of the South African Institute of International Affairs.

South Africa says it doesn’t take a side in the Ukraine conflict and didn’t vote for a UN resolution last year that criticized Russia.

It has responded to criticism by saying that it has done similar exercises with other countries, such as one with France in November.

“South Africa, like any independent and sovereign state, has a right to conduct its foreign relations in line with its… national interests,South Africa’s defense ministry said last month.

But six South Africa-based diplomats, all from NATO or EU countries, told Reuters they condemned the exercise.

“It’s not right, and we told them that we do not approve,” one said.

Not welcome?

Russia’s own actions have stoked the controversy. It has deployed a frigate armed with a new generation of hypersonic cruise missile called the Zircon.

President Vladimir Putin has called the weapon, which can travel at more than five times the speed of sound, “unstoppable.” This month, Russia’s TASS news agency said that the frigate would practice launching during the exercise.

“I’m not sure South Africa really realizes the potential backlash,” Gruzd said.

Russia’s defense ministry did not respond to a request for comment, and South Africa’s National Defense Force has denied the TASS report. But outrage among those opposed to Russia’s deployment in South African waters persists.

Last weekend, the vessel carrying the Zircon docked in Cape Town, emblazoned on its flanks with the letters Z and V—symbols Russia uses to promote the war in Ukraine.

The mayor of Cape Town, Geordin Hill-Lewis, said on Twitter that the ship was not welcome in the city because it was part of Russia’s evil war.

Historical ties

The African National Congress is in charge of South Africa. It has long-standing ties to Moscow, which helped it fight against the racist apartheid regime, which many Western countries thought of as a Cold War ally.

“Russia’s, and to a lesser degree, China’s, posture as an anti-colonial ally still resonates in much of Africa, even if others may now view it as ancient history,” said Cobus van Staden of the China-Global South Project.

As Russia and China now seek to build new international coalitions, he said that history is coming to the fore in Africa, where some nations are keen for alternatives to Western hegemony.

South Africa, for example, greatly values its place within the BRICS bloc alongside Russia, China, India, and Brazil and supports Beijing’s plans to expand membership and increase its clout.

There is a risk, however, of Pretoria’s foreign policy goals undermining its economic interests.

“Some companies have asked us if it is still safe to engage with South Africa for business because they fear possible consequences,” one European ambassador told Reuters.

China is now Africa’s top bilateral trading partner, but the EU is by far the largest market for South African exports.

Two-way trade with the EU amounted to around $53 billion last year, according to South African data, compared to a little over $750 million with Russia.

Domestic critics of South Africa’s push to deepen ties with Russia and China say that economic reality alone should be enough to give the government serious pause.

“It is a slap in the face of our trading partners to be this clearly on the side of Russia on the anniversary of the invasion,” said Kobus Marais, who heads the opposition Democratic Alliance’s defense portfolio.

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