Chinese guided-missile frigate Yancheng in South Africa during a July 2018 port visit. Photo: Facebook

China, Russia and South Africa are scheduled to hold naval exercises, a military flex known as Ex Mosi that will carry geopolitical weight for the former two allies’ vision of an emerging new multipolar world opposed to US dominance and the latter’s aspirations for leadership on the African continent.

Last week, Naval News reported that China, Russia and South Africa have agreed to conduct trilateral naval exercises between February 17-24 off the coast of South Africa’s KwaZulu-Natal province in the Indian Ocean.

As noted by the South African defense website Defense Web last week, Exercise Mosi will involve search and rescue, vessel in distress, officer of the watch maneuvers, gunnery, force protection and air defense exercises. Chinese People’s Liberation Army-Navy (PLA-N) ships, two Russian Navy ships and one South African Navy warship will participate in the drills.

Naval News notes that the announcement comes after China and Russia capped off bilateral naval drills in the East China Sea from December 21-27 that aimed to showcase the two allies’ joint capabilities to counter maritime threats and, at the same time, nominally uphold international and regional peace and stability.

Previously, China, Russia and South Africa held trilateral naval exercises of the same name in 2019. In a 2019 article for The Diplomat, Ankit Panda noted that Exercise Mosi 2019 was the first trilateral naval exercise between the three countries in the waters off Africa.

Those drills involved the Chinese Type 054 frigate Weifang, the Russian missile cruiser Admiral Ustinov accompanied by the tanker Vyazma and SB-406 tugboat, and the South African frigate SMS Amatola and SAS Protea survey and auxiliary vessel.

Next month’s planned naval exercise may be an attempt by China and Russia to show themselves as alternatives to Western-led security arrangements. China and Russia, along with Brazil, India, and South Africa, are members of the so-called “BRICS” group of nations.

Zaki Laïdi describes the BRICS bloc in a November 2011 CERI Strategy Paper as a heterogenous coalition united by a fundamental objective to erode Western hegemonic claims by upholding the political sovereignty of states.

Laïdi notes that while BRICS is not an anti-Western coalition per se, nor does it propose an alternative world order, the bloc’s focus on upholding state sovereignty diverges from the liberal values of Western regimes.

Chinese President Xi Jinping shakes hands with Russian President Vladimir Putin during a meeting on the sidelines of the 11th BRICS Summit, in Brasilia in 2019. Photo: Sputnik / Ramil Sitdikov

Underscoring Laïdi’s points, Chinese President Xi Jinping made a thinly-veiled swipe at the West during the June 2022 14th BRICS summit, stating that “some countries attempt to expand military alliances to seek absolute security, stoke bloc-based confrontation by coercing other countries into picking sides and pursue unilateral dominance at the expense of others’ rights and interests.”

China and Russia’s engagements with South Africa may also be driven by the latter’s strategic value. South Africa’s strategic location and standing as a military power in the African continent has made it attractive to China and Russia, notes Anton Kruger in a May 2011 article for the Institute of Security Studies.

Kruger writes that South Africa’s geostrategic port location and resources can enable BRICS to better compete in G7 summits and serve as an alternative shipping route considering the vulnerability of the Suez Canal to political instability in the Middle East.

Kruger also notes South Africa’s prominent role in peacekeeping operations in Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and support to Mozambique in its counter-piracy operations.  

China and Russia are aiming to bring South Africa into their vision of a multipolar world order, wherein the former two have more say in international decision-making while using the latter as a gateway to expand their influence into the African continent.

China and Russia may also want to demonstrate and validate their expeditionary warfare and force projection capabilities, which will become of increasing importance, given China’s need to secure infrastructure and economic projects under its Maritime Silk Road geopolitical vision and Russia’s need for limited force projection capabilities as seen in Syria and Venezuela.

For South Africa, its BRICS membership is an effort to position itself as Africa’s regional leader, with its engagements with China and Russia, including the upcoming naval exercises, an attempt to legitimize this position.

In a 2013 article in the peer-reviewed journal Africa Contemporaine, Folashadé Soulé-Kohndou mentions that South Africa has openly positioned itself as the primary partner for external parties to engage African states, often presenting itself as the “African spokesperson,” “voice of Africa,” or the “representative of Africa.”

However, this positioning has attracted criticism, Soulé-Kohndou mentions, as other African states question South Africa’s independent positioning as a regional leader.

That all said, the upcoming trilateral naval exercises should not be over-interpreted as South Africa switching sides from NATO and the West to China and Russia.

In a November 2019 Institute for Security Studies article, Peter Fabricius writes that South Africa’s military doctrine, equipment and tactics are still overwhelmingly reliant on NATO, with which it has conducted more exercises than China and Russia.

Fabricius notes that South Africa’s largest routine naval exercise, Exercise Good Hope, is undertaken with NATO member Germany, which is logical since the former’s frigates and submarines are made by the latter.

South African Maritime Reaction Squadron forces and German VBSS and SA special forces during Exercise Good Hope V in 2012. Image: Reddit

In addition to the Exercise Good Hope with Germany, South Africa also hosts the biennial Exercise Oxide with France, with last year’s iteration sponsored by South Africa from November 17-28, as reported by the defense website Military Africa.

According to the report, Exercise Oxide aimed to enhance cooperation and interoperability between the French and South African navies. It also involved search and rescue, surveillance, disaster relief, hostage negotiation and release exercises.

Fabricius notes that Exercise Mosi is low-lying fruit involving counter-piracy and joint disaster rescue missions, while Exercise Good Hope is a regular simulation of actual warfare.

In addition, he mentions that South Africa may be pursuing Exercise Mosi due to defense force cost-cutting that has reduced opportunities to conduct military exercises with its traditional security partners.