Joint SA-Russia-China 10-day naval exercises begin

Russian frigate Admiral Gorshkov gets ready to leave Cape Town harbour en route to Durban where it is scheduled to do naval exercises with the South African and Chinese navies, in Cape Town, South Africa, February 15, 2023. PHOTO | REUTERS

What you need to know:

  • The exercises will be held in Durban and Richards Bay, both on the Indian Ocean KwaZulu-Natal provincial coastline.
  • The exercises will be the second of their type involving the three countries, the first having been held in November 2019 in the waters off Cape Town.

A much-criticised 10-day joint naval exercise off the coast of South Africa involving S. African, Russian and Chinese vessels is due to commence today, with close American and Nato observation a certainty.

Western diplomats and South African opposition parties have strongly objected to the exercises, dubbed Exercise Mosi II, and described as “inopportune” and “inappropriate”, while the Ukraine conflict goes on, and also as undermining South Africa’s self-declared ‘non-alignment’ in geo-political terms.

But the administration of President Cyril Ramaphosa is unashamed of the joint exercises and claims that they will benefit all three nations.

The issue was once again headline news in South Africa as the first Russian naval vessel docked at Simonstown Naval yards this week.

Naval Base Simon's Town is the S. African Navy's largest naval base, situated at Simon's Town, about 35kms south of Cape Town, and providing support functions to the S. African Navy’s Fleet Command.

The South African Navy is tiny and most of its war vessels, including frigates and submarines, are out of commission.

But the exercise was given the go-ahead because, in large measure, of the increased influence which it is thought in relevant circles in S. Africa that the undertaking would represent in terms of symbolic power alliances, as well as presenting an overt challenge to America’s efforts to restore its influence and prestige in Africa, much diminished after the Trump era.

In August 2022, US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken visited S. Africa as part of Washington’s efforts in the Biden administration to reverse the negative views of US policies in Africa that developed under the former administration, which was openly disparaging of Africa as a whole.

The Simonstown base is also associated with one of the Cold War’s most secretive facilities, Silvermine, an operational and data centre located about 10kms from Simonstown in the Constantia Valley.

Even at the height of the international anti-apartheid movement and Western diplomatic, sporting and cultural isolation of the then white minority government in Pretoria, there remained an extremely low-key but constant American and Nato presence at this facility.

Deep Southern Ocean sensors were used to gather information at Silvermine to keep tabs on Russian and Chinese spying and naval vessels, even those passing hundreds of kilometres south of the Cape of Good Hope, in particular the nuclear submarines of both these states.

None of this was open or acknowledged at the time, nor now will authorities admit to what actually happens at Silvermine, a multi-storey underground complex, almost invisible at ground level and dug deep into the side of a mountain, understood to have been built to sustain a close strike with a multimegaton nuclear explosion.

It is also known in security circles that, at least during the Cold War, and possibly still, both Simonstown and Silvermine were pre-targetted with nuclear warheads from ICBMs in the 2-3 megaton range, in the event of an all-out nuclear exchange between Nato and Russia, then the Soviet Union.

Since Silvermine’s activities were and are still ‘top secret’, it is unclear what observers there, still with active links to both American and other Nato countries’ naval and civil marine agencies, will be able to access, with regards to data and information emerging from the exercises.

Pushing aside questions about the wisdom of the tri-nation naval manoeuvres, S. Africa’s Defence and Military Veterans Minister, Thandi Modise, says she is confident that the multinational maritime exercise will benefit all three participating nations.

“The envisaged exercise will benefit all countries involved through interoperability of the naval systems, joint disaster systems management enhancement, maritime cooperation and anti-piracy exercises.”

In addition, she said, Exercise Mosi II will serve as a platform for the three nations to share operational skills, expertise and experience.

This statement followed the formal announcement by S. African National Defence Force (SANDF) that the SA Navy would host the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy and the Russian Federal Navy during the maritime exercise over 10 days.

The exercises will be held in Durban and Richards Bay, both on the Indian Ocean KwaZulu-Natal provincial coastline.

The exercises will be the second of their type involving the three countries, the first having been held in November 2019 in the waters off Cape Town.

Exercise Mosi II will see over 350 SANDF personnel from various arms of services and divisions participating alongside their Russian and Chinese counterparts.

S. Africa, according to the Defence Department, “enjoys diplomatic relations with all member states of BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and S. Africa) at a bilateral level, in addition to the multilateral levels”.

“We also enjoy defence diplomatic relations with several countries across all the continents of the world since we have become an integral part of the community of nations and no longer a pariah state,” said Defence Minister Modise.

In recent months, the Defence Ministry said, it had had “engagements with counterparts in the United Kingdom, China, Nigeria, Cote d’Ivoire and Ghana”.

“There was no hype about any of these countries, especially about the USA (with whom) we held an even longer exercise, known as Exercise Shared Accord in KwaZulu-Natal last year, regarding our military health capabilities,” the Ministry added.

In addition, the SANDF “plans and budgets for military exercises with other nations across the globe, both at bilateral and multilateral levels”.

Exercise Mosi II, was, said the minister, no exception, including the Exercise Shared Accord held with the United States armed forces counterparts.

The biennial maritime Exercise Oxide, between S. Africa and France, also took place in November last year at the Simonstown Naval Base.

“We wish to state categorically that South Africa, like any independent and sovereign state, has a right to conduct its foreign relations in line with its diplomatic relations and national interests,” said S. Africa’s Defence Ministry.

“South Africa sees Exercise Mosi II as an opportunity to contribute towards further strengthening the strong bonds that exist between S. Africa, Russia and China,” it added.

“Contrary to the assertions by our critics, S. Africa is not abandoning its neutral position on the Russian-Ukraine conflict.

“We remain firm in our view that multilateralism and dialogue are keys to unlocking sustainable international peace. We continue to urge both parties to engage in dialogue as a solution to the current conflict.”

Nevertheless, local commentators, quoting Western diplomatic sources, said that by staging a joint exercise with Russia and China at a “highly sensitive time”, S. Africa was undermining its claim of being ‘nonaligned’ in the Ukrainian war, and risking good relations with the West.