What Joint Drills With South African, Russian Navies Mean for China
Voice of America
22 Feb 2023, 04:05 GMT+10
Johannesburg – South Africa is under fire for hosting joint naval exercises with Russia during the one-year anniversary of the invasion of Ukraine, with critics saying it will be a propaganda victory for Moscow. But what does the third participant in the drills, China, have to gain from the tripartite exercises taking place this week?
Some analysts told VOA that, in China’s case, Exercise Mosi II, off South Africa’s east coast, is less about a real exchange of military prowess and more about important political and diplomatic optics.
“China has a lot to gain from these exercises,” said Paul Nantulya, from the Africa Center for Strategic Studies in Washington. “It is sending a very powerful signal to other African countries that in-person military training is now back on the table. … China and [its] People’s Liberation Army are basically back” after years of closed borders during the pandemic.
He said the drills were also sending a message to China’s competitors, namely the U.S., that Beijing has military clout in the region. The South Africa war games are taking place at almost the same time as the U.S. Army’s Exercise Justified Accord in Kenya and just after U.S.-led maritime exercises off the Gulf of Guinea.
They also take place amid heightened tensions between Washington and Beijing in the wake of the U.S. shooting down an alleged Chinese spy balloon and after Secretary of State Antony Blinken warned that China is considering supplying Russia with weapons for its war against Ukraine.
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Priyal Singh, a senior researcher at the Institute for Security Studies (ISS) in Pretoria, had a similar assessment.
“This assists Beijing in illustrating to the West [and the world in general] that it has a foothold in the South Indian Ocean through its strong relations with South Africa. I believe this may be important to China, given the geopolitical contestations being played out across the Indian Ocean region,” Singh said in an email to VOA.
‘I believe that the decision to proceed with these exercises was primarily driven by political considerations. Navies play important diplomatic and symbolic roles,’ Singh’s ISS colleague Denys Reva added.
Unidentified Chinese naval officers attend Armed Forces Day in Richards Bay, South Africa, Feb. 21, 2023. The parade took place as a naval exercise was underway off the east coast of the country with Russian and Chinese navies.
Darren Olivier, director at the African Defense Review, pointed out this week’s naval exercises off South Africa are limited in nature and “focused mostly on basic maneuvers and light gunnery.”
“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, and unsurprisingly as a result, the exercise as described will not feature in-depth exploration or testing of any serious combat capabilities or procedures,” he said.
Asked by VOA what China seeks to gain from the exercises, a spokesperson for the Chinese Embassy in the U.S. said “the joint maritime exercise held by the navies of the three countries in the southern waters of Africa is of great significance.”
“It will help deepen the exchanges and cooperation among the navies, improve their ability to jointly respond to maritime security threats, demonstrate their determination to maintain regional maritime peace and stability and their good will and strong capabilities to actively promote the building of an ocean community with a shared future.”
China, Russia and South Africa are all members of the BRICS grouping of emerging economies, which also includes India and Brazil.
Steve Tsang, director of the China Institute at SO