South Africa’s Naval Exercises With China And Russia: Cause For Concern? – Analysis


By Charles A. Ray*

All ‘Mosi’ and No Fire?

(FPRI) — The South African military participated in a 10-day joint military exercise with Russia and China along South Africa’s east coast, from February 17 to 27, a move that foreign and domestic critics have called “tantamount to endorsing the Kremlin’s onslaught on its neighbor,” referring to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the fact that the exercise is taking place during the first anniversary of the invasion. Named Mosi, which means “smoke” in the local Tswana language, the exercises took place off the port cities of Durban and Richards Bay, and involved more than 350 members of South Africa’s armed forces serving alongside naval units of Russia and China.

Tim Cohen, an editor at the Daily Maverick of South Africa, said, “The event is being held on the anniversary of the invasion of Ukraine, so it’s clearly a propaganda event aimed at bolstering support for the invasion. Pretoria’s pretense of being in favor of a negotiated solution to the Ukraine crisis dissolves with this exercise.” The Democratic Alliance, the largest opposition party in the country, decried the exercises as making South Africa part of Russia’s “propaganda show.” South Africa has consistently refused to condemn the invasion of Ukraine, saying that it wants to stay neutral.

Lindsey Graham, senator from South Carolina, criticized the decision. The move was interesting, but it was not an official position of the US government. On February 21, 2023, Republican members of the House of Representatives submitted a draft resolution to the House Committee on Foreign Affairs opposing the exercises and calling on the Biden administration to review US policy towards South Africa. While the White House itself has made no public comments on this specific exercise, in January, White House spokesperson Karine Jean-Pierre said, “the United States has concerns about any country exercising with Russia while Russia wages a brutal war against Ukraine.” This statement was in response to joint Chinese-Russian exercises in eastern Russia in September, which also involved forces from several former Soviet republics, India, Laos, Mongolia, Nicaragua, and Syria. None of the news reports quoting the White House made this point clear. The closest thing to a US government position was a statement by the US embassy spokesperson in Pretoria on January 25, 2023, who told CBS News that “We are concerned about South Africa’s plan to hold joint naval exercises with Russia and the PRC in February, even as Moscow continues its brutal and unlawful war of aggression against Ukraine.”

South Africa Doubling Down, But There Could be Consequences 

The South African government has stood firm in its decision. In January, for instance, a statement from the defense ministry said, “South Africa, like any independent and sovereign state, has a right to conduct its foreign relations in line with its national interests.” But six South Africa-based diplomats from NATO and EU countries told Reuters news service that they condemned the exercise. The angst has been caused as much by Russia’s actions as anything. The Russians deployed the Admiral Gorshkov, a frigate armed with Zircon, a new generation of hypersonic cruise missiles, to participate in the exercise, and reported that there would be a training launch of the missile during the exercise.

The African National Congress (ANC), South Africa’s governing party, has historical ties with the Kremlin, because of its support during the struggle against the apartheid regime, which many Western nations considered an ally. Russia, and to a certain extent, China, are still viewed as anti-colonial allies, and are seen by many African nations, such as South Africa, as alternatives to Western hegemony, according to Cobus van Staden of the China-Global South Project. Further complicating the situation was the fact that South Africa, along with India and China, were among thirty-two countries abstaining on the UN resolution of February 23, 2023, calling for an end to the war and Russian withdrawal from Ukrainian territory.

Following an independent foreign policy, though, risks undermining South Africa’s economic interests. While China is now the top bilateral trading partner for most of Africa, the European Union is still the largest market for South African exports, with two-way trade last year of about $53 billion compared to just over $750 million with Russia. The United States is also a significant trading partner with South Africa, with an estimated two-way trade in goods and services in 2019 of $17.8 billion. China-South Africa trade in 2020 was $14.7 billion in Chinese exports to South Africa and $11.9 billion in exports from South Africa to China. 

How Will the Biden Administration Handle this Hot Potato? 

Coming so close on the heels of the US-Africa Leadership Summit, held in Washington in December 2022, these exercises pose a dilemma for the Biden administration, further complicated by the Republicans gaining control of the House of Representatives and who seem bent on making life as difficult as possible for the administration in the runup to the 2024 presidential elections.

An embassy statement, while an official government statement, doesn’t carry the same weight as a statement directly from the White House. The State Department, did, in an email to Voice of America, say, “We note with concern South Africa’s plan to hold joint naval exercises with Russia and the PRC … We encourage South Africa to cooperate militarily with fellow democracies that share our mutual commitment to human rights and the rule of law.”

While the United States has been very vocal about its strategic competition with China and Russia and its concern about the increased presence of both nations in Africa, at the same time, at the US-Africa Leaders Summit the United States stressed that its engagement in Africa would not be based entirely on this competition. Whether the administration decides to elevate the level of its reaction beyond the State Department and embassy statements will probably be determined by the scope and nature of the exercise and a determination of its impact on the broader strategic context in the region. The exercises are “limited in nature,” according to Darren Oliver, director at the African Defense Review, and “focused mostly on basic maneuvers and light gunnery.” Oliver went on to say in a February 21, 2023 Voice of Americainterview that “It’s important to note that South Africa has a NATO-oriented operational and tactical doctrine that’s dissimilar to that of Russia and China, which inherently limits what can be done jointly . . . the exercise as described will not feature in-depth exploration or testing of any serious combat capabilities or procedures.”

On February 23, 2023, Lt. Gen. Siphiwe Sangweni, chief of joint operations of the South African National Defence Force, speaking to a news conference in the eastern port town of Richards Bay said, “Yes, there will be other countries who feel differently in how we have approached this, but … all countries are sovereign nations and have a right to handle things as they see fit.” Capt. Oleg Gladkiy, the Russian naval detachment commander, added, “Hypersonic missiles will not be a part of these exercises.” The exercise, said Gladkiy, involved maneuvering to assist vessels in disasters, vessels captured by pirates, and artillery fire at naval targets. Sangweni said that the army was “guided by government,” but also needed to learn skills from other military forces to be able to protect South Africa and for use in international peacekeeping operations.

While the exercise represents propaganda victories for Russia and China, and enables South Africa to strengthen its ties with both, it does not appear to pose an immediate threat to US security interests. In the absence of a more specific threat to US interests, the likelihood is that we have seen the administration’s response and once this event is replaced in the news by the next crisis, the United States will resume business as usual.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities.

*About the author: Charles A. Ray, a member of the Board of Trustees and Chair of the Africa Program at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, served as U.S. Ambassador to the Kingdom of Cambodia and the Republic of Zimbabwe.

Source: This article was published by FPRI

Published by the Foreign Policy Research Institute

Founded in 1955, FPRI ( is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization devoted to bringing the insights of scholarship to bear on the development of policies that advance U.S. national interests and seeks to add perspective to events by fitting them into the larger historical and cultural context of international politics.

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