Basic What we learned from the Russia-China-South Africa military drills

Posted by: Berhane Habtemariam

Date: Sunday, 05 March 2023

By Atlantic Council experts

March 5, 2023

What we learned from the Russia-China-South Africa military drills

Rough seas ahead. On Monday, China, Russia, and South Africa wrapped up ten days of joint naval drills in the Indian Ocean, an exercise that overlapped with the one-year mark of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Why did these three nations get together? Why now? And what did we learn about the military capabilities of the two powers that the United States considers to be its chief security threats? Experts from across the Council set sail with the answers.

1. Why are Russia and China teaming up with South Africa?

Teaming up may be a misleading term, as South Africa has longstanding ties with both Russia and China. South Africa’s ruling party, the African National Congress (ANC), received significant Soviet support during the anti-apartheid struggle, including both military and financial backing. South Africa became a member of the BRICS consortium of economies in 2014—which also includes Brazil, Russia, India, and China—and has had strong economic engagement with China since the early 2000s. Also, Russia, China, and South Africa have previously conducted bilateral and other multilateral joint training exercises. So defense cooperation among these nations is neither unprecedented nor wholly unanticipated.

In addition to the practical and diplomatic advantages of shared drills with South Africa, its location aligns strategically with Russian and Chinese efforts to project naval power in African waters. Russia has increased its activities in the Indian Ocean in recent years, for example with efforts to secure port access for its navy in Mozambique. China similarly wants to increase its ability to deploy the People’s Liberation Army Navy worldwide, including in the Indian and Atlantic oceans. To support its navy’s push, China must ensure logistics provision and access in ports or basing in countries along these coasts, such as in Kenya, the Seychelles, Tanzania, or Angola. Straddling both these coasts, of course, is South Africa.

Sarah Daly is a nonresident fellow at the Africa Center.

As with the previous exercise between South Africa, Russia, and the People’s Republic of China in 2019, these trilateral naval exercises are likely to prove to be of limited warfighting value, but are incredibly valuable to the diplomatic interests of each country. As has been true throughout history, a navy that is capable of sustained global operations is a unique element of national strength that contributes heavily to advancing diplomatic efforts. This exercise in naval diplomacy enables South Africa to demonstrate its independent foreign policy, Russia to highlight its continued relations with nations of the Global South, and China to demonstrate the increasing global reach of its navy.  

The United States and like-minded allies and partners also understand the value of naval diplomacy. The US Navy has the USS Hershel “Woody” Williams, an expeditionary sea base (ESB) that is permanently forward deployed to the region with one of its primary missions being to support ongoing diplomatic efforts and engage with countries in Africa. This ESB makes frequent visits to countries throughout the continent for engagement opportunities and most recently visited South Africa in August 2022.  

—LCDR Marek Jestrab is the 2022-2023 senior US Navy fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security. These views do not represent the US Navy or the Department of Defense.

South Africa is a regional hegemon in southern Africa and economically, diplomatically, and militarily among the giants of the African continent, making it an obvious focus for attention. It also has historically warm relations with China dating back to the struggle against apartheid. Finally, South Africa has an ambivalent relationship with the United States and the rest of the Western “international community.” The move is popular with many South Africans, especially those who align with the ruling ANC. 

Michael Shurkin is a nonresident senior fellow at the Africa Center.

2. What is South Africa’s political motivation in aligning with these two militaries?

South Africa has repeatedly emphasized its neutrality vis-à-vis Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. South African President Cyril Ramaphosa has pushed for negotiations in official calls with Russian President Vladimir Putin and asserted that he would be willing to mediate a peaceful resolution to the conflict. That said, South Africa is stretching the limits of neutrality. Hosting high-level bilateral meetings, describing relations as “friendly,” and participating in “routine” joint military drills indicate support for, rather than cordiality toward, Russia. South Africa’s friendly and routine relations are antithetical to the West’s aims to isolate, deter, and defeat Russia. In an increasingly polarized diplomatic environment, non-alignment can appear to be de-facto alignment with Russia.   

South Africa’s particular approach to non-alignment in this case contributes to the tension. While South Africa has officially acknowledged the illegality of the invasion, it has resisted pressure to enforce sanctions or cut ties. Its actions increasingly belie its stated desire to remain neutral and independent from ‘great power’ struggles, and some segments of the South African public are questioning the government’s stance.

From a military readiness standpoint, the exercise included joint tactical maneuvers as well as rescue and recovery drills; the latter align with threat risks presented by piracy and illicit activities in the Indian Ocean. These shared drills represent a legitimate training opportunity for the South African Defense Force (SADF). South Africa is not the primary partner or recipient of US naval training exercises in Africa, although SADF participated in Shared Accord last summer and other military-to-military assistance focusing on developing and improving medical capabilities. South Africa has previously participated in US Africa Command’s Indian Ocean drills, which focus on East African nations, although not in the past few years. Other US naval exercises in Africa focus on the Gulf of Guinea and the Mediterranean.

—Sarah Daly

3. What new lessons did we learn from this exercise regarding Russian and Chinese capabilities?

Russia brought a hypersonic missile, apparently for display purposes. This show and tell indicates Russia’s desire to demonstrate its technical strength to the world and prove that it can maintain external commitments despite the strain of its war in Ukraine on its armed forces, economy, and political stability. 

—Sarah Daly

China’s focus on the maritime domain, through a sustained investment in shipbuilding, is a key element of its strategic objective to disrupt the international order and challenge the United States. The exponential growth of China’s maritime forces has already resulted in it being the world’s largest navy with approximately 340 battle force ships, compared to 294 in the US Navy’s current inventory. This trilateral exercise, conducted thousands of miles from its shoreline, is further evidence of its strategic plan to become a global navy. As China’s sustained investment in shipbuilding results in expected growth to 400 warships by 2025 and 440 warships by 2030, policymakers must be aware of China’s intent to use its maritime force for worldwide power projection and expanded naval diplomacy.

—Marek Jestrab

4. What message does it send to have these drills coincide with the one-year anniversary of the war in Ukraine, and with reports of increased Chinese support of Russia in the war?

At the very least, it signals that South Africa is not concerned with Ukraine and not interested in towing the Western line. South Africa would prefer to highlight its independence and its willingness to conduct its international relations as it sees fit. 

—Michael Shurkin

Russia’s recent diplomatic and military push in South Africa signals that it can continue its foreign relations as a bilateral security partner despite the ongoing crisis in Ukraine. Conducting drills with Russia and China at such a contentious time seemingly suggests that South Africa condones Russia’s actions in Ukraine—even if its stated stance is one of non-alignment. South Africa’s asserted neutral position is shared by fellow BRICS member India, which has also faced scrutiny for maintaining diplomatic, economic, and military relations with Russia following the invasion of Ukraine. India has continued to purchase Russian oil and participated in Russia’s Vostok 2022 military exercises with China in August. We should be circumspect about assigning greater meaning to the timing or “message” of these drills.

—Sarah Daly

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