The political goodwill China will gain in Africa from a naval drill with South Africa and Russia next month will outweigh any military benefits, according to analysts.
South Africa’s Defence Department announced on January 19 that the country would host Exercise Mosi II off its coast from February 17 to 27.
South Africa will send 350 naval personnel to participate alongside Russian and Chinese counterparts with the aim of sharing operational skills and knowledge.
The preparations for the drill were made in virtual planning conferences in early December. It is the second Mosi exercise for the three navies, following one in November 2019.
The drill has attracted criticism from countries opposed to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which South Africa has refused to condemn.
South African Foreign Minister Naledi Pandor said on Monday that it was natural for friends to host such exercises.
Zhou Chenming, a researcher from the Yuan Wang military science and technology think tank, which is based in Beijing, said the trilateral drill was another sign of the resumption of China’s military diplomacy after three years of pandemic-control restrictions.
“China has always placed importance on relationship building with African nations since the 1990s,” he said. “What has changed now is the Chinese navy’s capabilities, which were much weaker years ago.”
Zhou said the small drill looked like a routine exercise, adding that there were no political rivals for Beijing among South Africa’s neighbours.
According to the Pentagon’s 2020 China Military Power Report, the People’s Liberation Army has the biggest navy in the world with an overall battle force of about 350 surface ships and submarines, including over 130 major surface combatants.
Timothy Heath, a senior international defence researcher at Rand Corporation, a think tank in the United States, said the main takeaway from the joint exercise would be political symbolism rather than any actual military achievements.
“The exercise is most significant for Chinese efforts to build good relations with African countries and does little to enhance China’s or South Africa’s military strength,” he said.
Heath said China would gain “diplomatic standing and political goodwill among South African elites and some African audiences for its willingness to stand alongside South Africa’s decision to carry out an exercise with Russia”, which was useful for China due to its comprehensive relationship with African countries through belt and road projects and long-standing cooperation.
The Belt and Road Initiative is a vast China-centered strategy to grow global trade that involves dozens of countries and more than US$1 trillion in investment.
China has a cordial relationship with South Africa. When a new Covid-19 surge erupted in China weeks ago, South Africa did not impose any travel restrictions on Chinese travellers.
On November 15, President Xi Jinping met South African President Cyril Ramaphosa in Bali, Indonesia, on the sidelines of the G20 summit. Xi hailed the China-South Africa relationship as “comradeship plus brotherhood”, and said the two countries should “firmly uphold international fairness and justice and the common interests of developing countries”.