South Africa's Trilateral Naval Exercises

South Africa has started the new year by fostering diplomatic relations with global powers by hosting bilateral meetings with political leaders from across the globe. US Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen visited South Africa a day after the Russian Foreign Minister visited South Africa to boost bilateral economic, diplomatic and social development across the region. South Africa strives to augment its engagement with the major powers as it embarks on joint trilateral naval drills with China and Russia, which it announced after the meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on 23 January 2023. The tri-nation naval exercise is organised between 17 to 27 February near the South African ports of Durban and Richards Bay.

Nearly 350 personnel of the country’s armed forces are participating in the exercises. This ten-day practice is termed “Mosi II”, which means “smoke” in the native Tswana language. The exercises aim to foster trilateral military relations and to share operational and technical proficiency and knowledge. Previously in 2019, the three states conducted a similar practice, “Mosi”, in Cape Town, which was intended to benefit all the participating states in enhancing practical skills and joint disaster systems management as stated by the Defence and Military Veterans Minister of South Africa, Thandi Modise.

The announcement came soon after China and Russia commenced a bilateral naval exercise in the East China Sea in December 2022 to exhibit their joint military capabilities. The joint exercises will help further enhance defence and military collaboration with all the BRICS states. South Africa is also expected to host the BRICS in 2023, which will aim to strengthen and expand joint maritime activities.

Moreover, these 10-day maritime drills coincide with the first anniversary of the Russia-Ukraine conflict. The West professes them as Russia’s attempt to show that amidst all sanctions, Moscow is still not unaccompanied or isolated in international politics.

The geostrategic significance of South Africa is possibly the reason for Moscow and Beijing’s increasing closeness to the state. As said by the critics, their involvement may be an attempt to showcase their abilities against “western-led security arrangements”. Both emerging global powers are aiming to use South Africa as a gateway to enhance their interest in the African region.

Since their announcement, the tri-nation naval exercises have become a topic of much concern for the United States. South Africa is under intense criticism as the West openly condemns the decision. For Washington, it seems to be a clear indication of South Africa’s support for Russia in its conduct of the war against Ukraine since South Africa was one of 35 states that restrained from voting in the United Nations against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Moreover, these 10-day maritime drills coincide with the first anniversary of the Russia-Ukraine conflict. The West professes them as Russia’s attempt to show that amidst all sanctions, Moscow is still not unaccompanied or isolated in international politics.

South Africa’s growing inclination towards non-western alliances draws not just international attention but also faces massive opposition from within the state. The opposition party at home, the Democratic Alliance, completely opposes the decision to host naval exercises. As stated by the Minister of Defence and Military Affairs, Kobus Marais, “While our government has claimed to be neutral, this is just another of many incidents where the ruling party (ANC) has exposed their favouritism towards Russia and has done nothing but to showcase and prove the government’s lack of neutrality in this case,”

The Director of US Maritime Headquarters also professed their plans to conduct Cutlass Express military exercises concentrated on the US partners in eastern Africa. However, South Africa National Defence Force refused to join the US in military exercises this year.

Nevertheless, South Africa has been endeavouring to develop good geostrategic relations with all the potential global powers, especially by conducting military exercises, for instance, “Operation Oxidise” with France. Putting aside all the opposition, South Africa described it as merely a “multinational naval exercise” to strengthen the already flourishing relations. For the leadership of South Africa, it is its non-aligned and independent position on the foreign policy front. South Africa’s Foreign Minister Naledi Pandor defended it by saying, “All countries conduct military exercises with friends worldwide, so there should be no compulsion on any country that they should not conduct them with any other partner. It’s part of a natural course of relationships between countries,”.

The military exercises with South Africa also indicate changing diplomatic dynamics between the evolving global actors, Russia and China. Putting aside historical mutual distrust and ideological differences, Moscow and Beijing are collaborating diplomatically and militarily and participating in military exercises. Overall, it can be seen that South Africa is becoming increasingly important in global politics. Being aware of its strategic importance, China and Russia are striving for better diplomatic ties with South Africa to augment their influence in the region. Their growing engagement becomes a cause of concern for Washington due to South Africa’s apparent mounting inclination towards Moscow and Beijing.

Sadia Riaz

Sadia Riaz is a graduate from International Islamic University Islamabad. She is currently serving as a research intern at Centre for Strategic and Contemporary Research.

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