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South Africa Plans Naval Drills With Russia and China

Russian Navy

Published Jan 16, 2023 8:59 PM by The Maritime Executive

Despite domestic opposition, South Africa's government is going ahead with plans for an extended joint exercise with Russian and Chinese naval forces.

In February, three Chinese naval vessels and two Russian warships will join a South African Navy exercise off the nation's east coast. The government of South Africa plans to dispatch a single warship to join the maneuvers, according to local defense industry site Defenceweb. 

During preparations for the exercise, the Russian and Chinese ships will call at the port of Richards Bay for replenishment and diplomatic courtesies. Beginning February 24 - the one-year anniversary of the Russian invasion of Ukraine - all participating vessels will put out to sea for a series of exercises, including search and rescue, maneuvering, air defense, gunnery and force protection. 

The drills will be the second set of their kind. In 2019, the South African Navy welcomed vessels from Brazil, China and Russia (the majority of the BRICS diplomatic bloc) for maneuvers off Cape Town. Brazil is not joining this year's event. 

While the 2019 exercise drew little attention, geopolitical circumstances have changed. China is increasingly at odds with the West as its ambitions expand, and its reach in the Indian Ocean has put rival India on notice. Meanwhile, Russia has become a pariah on the global stage due to its ongoing invasion of Ukraine. South Africa is among a small minority of nations which have refused to condemn Russia's actions, and it has drawn the West's scrutiny for its willingness to sustain military relations with Moscow. The ruling African National Congress party has longstanding ties to Russia, dating back to the Soviet era, and the political opposition has warned that keeping these connections could hurt South Africa's standing with its most important business partners.

"[The exercise] gives the impression of not being neutral but being biased to one side. Clearly it can alienate us from other important trade partners, the West,” said Kobus Marais, the shadow defence minister for the DA, speaking to Bloomberg.

The exercise is not the first controversy over the ANC's ties with Russia. In December, South Africa's biggest naval base accepted a port call from a sanctioned Russian vessel, the ro-ro / freighter Lady R. Eyewitnesses told local media that the vessel conducted nighttime cargo operations at the naval base from December 7-9, and containers of unknown provenance were brought into the base during the same time period. The boxes went in and out under escort, according to South Africa's political oppositon. According to the Wall Street Journal, the U.S. government is troubled that South Africa's military accommodated Lady R at a secure facility during her port call.