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The Mosi-2 Naval Drills

February 24, 2023 | Expert Insights

Since the start of the Russia-Ukraine war many countries in the Global South have chosen to hedge their bets by supporting neither side. While some have condemned Russia’s invasion, they have not openly sided with the West or completely broken off their relationship with Moscow. For one year these countries have played a careful balancing act trying not to antagonize either side. But carrying out such an act is becoming more and more difficult as the war intensifies instead of the two sides talking to each other.

These nations are present in both Asia and Africa. In the African continent South Africa is the most important of all these middle powers. So, the recent decision by the South African government to carry out these exercises has come as a surprise and shock to many.

South Africa: A lynchpin of Moscow’s Africa policy

The recent interest of Vladimir Putin in South Africa is nothing new. Since the end of the Cold War the Russians have been trying to cultivate South Africa as their strategic partner in the African arena. Relations were formed soon after the Soviet Union collapsed and the new Russian Federation was established. South Africa at this same period of time was going through the wrenching process of coming out of its Apartheid era international isolation. In 1990 the symbol of black resistance in South Africa Nelson Mandela was released from prison and this marked the beginning of a new epoch.

Moscow immediately started its engagement with South Africa on an active basis. It had a big advantage over other countries in this regard. The USSR was the main global supporter of the African National Congress (ANC) under Nelson Mandela. Such was the level of this support that the Western powers were wary of supporting Mandela and his ANC against the Apartheid regime due to this in the Cold War period. This goodwill towards the Soviet Union was carried over to Russia when the ANC formed the government in post-Apartheid South Africa. Progress was made in both trade and military cooperation. This did not matter to the rest of the world as long as the West was on friendly terms with Russia.

President Putin himself has made significant earlier efforts in engaging South Africa. He has been trying right from the beginning to move South Africa away from the West. The main international forum which has been used in this regard is the BRICS group of countries consisting of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa. South Africa joined this grouping in 2010. Moscow actively supported Pretoria’s entry into this forum.

Apart from this during this time there was increased security cooperation between Russia and South Africa. The security services of Russia have a long experience in carrying out domestic and satellite surveillance. South Africa sought to use this expertise to develop its own capabilities in this area. At that time relations between the West and Russia were not as strained as they are today so the Western world did not pay much attention to this at the time. Also, South Africa was not receiving the same kind of assistance from the West so Pretoria had no other option but to choose Moscow as a security partner. This was a huge lost opportunity for the West at the time but few realized this. Members of South Africa’s State Security Agency went to Russia for training and South Africa began to build up its satellite surveillance infrastructure with Russian help.

But this was not just a one-dimensional security partnership that was developing between these two countries. It was much deeper and more comprehensive in nature. Other areas where cooperation took place include agriculture, arts and culture, defence, education, energy, fisheries, mining, science and technology and transportation. As can be clearly seen Moscow left no stone unturned in engaging South Africa while the West was largely oblivious to all of this.

There was a brief downturn in relations when Cyril Ramaphosa replaced Jacob Zuma as President of South Africa. However, the underlying causes which brought the two countries continued to remain the same. The South African government and people could clearly see the West’s lack of interest in engaging with their country compared to Russia. So, they did not show any hesitation in reaching out to Moscow as a counter-balance to fulfil their national interests.

Leftist forces within South Africa still have sympathies for Russia due to the USSR’s support to the African population during Apartheid. The West has done nothing to counter this narrative. South Africa never became a full-blown ally of Russia. It continued to maintain its relationships with Western countries. From this it can be inferred that Pretoria was always hedging its bets between these two power blocs.

When South Africa was going through an energy crisis the Russian government again stepped in to provide assistance when the West was looking the other way. What South Africa needed most at the time was nuclear energy and Russia had the solution to offer. Eight nuclear power plants were constructed to function at quite a significant cost. This was not a gift but a sign of friendship to a strategically crucial country. All the bureaucratic hurdles to this agreement were overcome by hard work from both sides. Russia was also willing to overlook any corruption within the South African government in carrying out such an agreement which the West was not willing to do. However, the deal was cancelled because of these irregularities by a court order in April 2017. So, the embrace of the Russian bear has not always been beneficial for South Africa. Still, it has largely persisted due to the fact that the Western bloc has been mostly absent from the picture. This overall scenario has persisted right up to the present one-year anniversary of the Ukraine-Russia war.


China: The other player in South Africa

The Chinese did not start their relationship with South Africa as early as the Russians. But they have made up for this lost time in more ways than one. Today China’s relations with South Africa are increasingly based on trade. In fact, in the year 2010 China was South Africa’s largest trading partner. This has been a two-way street as both South Africa has realized the importance of Chinese trade and Beijing has also acknowledged the value of the South African market. Political and strategic ties have also increased side by side. South Africa has become an entry point for China to make inroads into the wider African continent both economically as well as geo-politically.

In 2010 South Africa was given the status of a strategic comprehensive partner by China under the Beijing Declaration. This showed that the People’s Republic was interested in and moving forward in diversifying its relationship with Pretoria from trade. Official diplomatic relations between the two countries were only established in 1998. This apparent delay can be explained by the fact that in the Apartheid era, the South African government had close ties with the government of the Republic of China in Taiwan. This precluded any possibility of Beijing establishing diplomatic contacts with Pretoria at the time. After the fall of the Apartheid regime, it took some time for the new South African government to change this aspect of its foreign policy. In the mean-time Beijing established its cultural centres in South Africa where it promoted Chinese culture. So, when diplomatic relations were finally established it did not come as a shock. Rather strong institutional foundations for this relationship were laid upon.

In 2022 in high level meetings between top officials of the two countries more emphasis was placed on security cooperation. This was in light of the increasing hostility between China and the West as well as the closer alignment of interests between China and Russia. The Chinese have realized the need for a security presence at the southern tip of the Indian Ocean and South Africa is ideally located for this. Pretoria is another multilateral pole in Beijing’s quest to reduce the global dominance of the United States. As a regional leader in the African continent, South Africa is also a powerful country in its own right for China to be interested in. This relationship will never be like the one China has with Pakistan or Myanmar. It is more a coming together of equals.

During the pandemic there was extensive interaction between the two countries with China offering help in the form of its vaccines. This was seen as a valuable, emergency assistance by the South Africans at a time when they were not receiving the needed vaccines from other sources. This is a goodwill that the West has not been able to build with the South Africans when it had the opportunity to do so. In the military sphere the Chinese continue to move ahead with the South Africans in areas including joint training and exercise, transfer of armaments and technology and greater interactions between the two militaries apart from the ongoing naval drills.

Implications for India: A Rethink on its Ukraine policy?

This is not the first time that such a joint maritime exercise has taken place between South Africa, Russia and China. Back in 2019 such exercises with Russian and Chinese naval vessels took place off the coast of Cape Town. At that time while tensions between Russia, China and the West was high, the Ukraine war had not yet taken place. Moscow and Beijing also had yet to move closer to each other the way they did before the invasion of Ukraine. So, at that time such exercises did not receive the global attention that they are getting now.

Now in a changed international scenario with such military cooperation between two countries which are close to India and one country which is an adversary, is there a need for India to recalibrate its position towards the Ukraine war? Will New Delhi gain anything with such a recalibration?

The answer is that New Delhi has gained rich dividends by maintaining an equal distance between both sides in the Ukraine conflict. It is worthwhile to continue this policy instead of aligning with Russia openly. The strategic situation of South Africa and India is completely different so the two countries cannot be compared in this regard. India is also trying to lessen its dependence on Russian arms imports be building up its own indigenous defence production sector. So, while it can carry out small scale exercises with the Russians any large demonstration is not advisable.

A second question which is raised by these exercises is whether China will get a new foothold in the Indian Ocean through this. Again, while this is a major boost for Chinese military influence in the Indian Ocean, New Delhi need not be disheartened. Instead, it needs to step up its game.

India must engage more deeply with the Indian Ocean littoral states especially in the naval sphere. Particular focus has to be placed on the African states on the east coast of the continent with a shoreline with the Indian Ocean. Apart from this India should also have more strategic outreach to Indian Ocean states in its own backyard like Maldives. The Chinese can use the Ukraine conflict to move closer to countries like South Africa in a way which India cannot replicate. But if New Delhi uses these other geo-political options at its disposal, then it can still give a hefty challenge to Beijing in the Indian Ocean region.

Lessons for the West: Ukraine war is not the world’s war

While South Africa has obviously thrown a challenge to Western countries through these exercises, the West also has to understand that it is itself to blame for its loss in this regard. Right from the beginning of the war in Ukraine the Western bloc has continued to put out the talking point that this is a global and freedom and autocracy where all the countries of the Global South should be on its side. This was a highly arrogant claim and it did not take into consideration the simple fact that for most countries of the world this was a European war which had little or nothing to do with their own national security.

As a result of this fallacious thinking the West did not bother to bring countries like South Africa on its side following the start of the Ukraine war. They did not take into consideration the specific security situation and needs of these countries.

Therefore, such a naval exercise was bound to happen. More developing countries could join South Africa in this regard if the Western nations continue to ignore their point of view.

As long as Russia has the support or the neutrality of these countries the war in Ukraine will continue no matter how much the US and Europe sanctions Moscow. Chinese influence in these countries will also increase side by side. To stop this the West has to hear the concerns of the Global South instead of morally patronizing them. Otherwise, it will only be accelerating the trends of a post-Western world order.