South Africa launched joint naval exercises with Russia and China on Friday, prompting international backlash and questions about its loyalty to Western allies.
The 10-day military drills, held to mark the one-year anniversary of Russia’s deadly invasion of Ukraine, signify more than an ambivalence about the war, they suggest Washington’s attempts to court South Africa are failing.
“There is a real desire on the part of South Africa to create a multipolar world and there is a real sense that the world has been done badly by a bipolar or unipolar world,” said Cameron Hudson, senior associate in the Center’s Africa program for Strategic & International Studies (CSIS) to Fox News Digital.
Hudson explained that this policy means South Africa will choose to work with whatever nation suits it best, including the US, Russia and China, despite controversial differences – a geopolitical tactic that Western nations find difficult to accept .
“In a multipolar world, all partners are valid partners,” he said.
China’s President Xi Jinping, South Africa’s President Cyril Ramaphosa and Russia’s President Vladimir Putin arrive to pose for a group photo during the 10th BRICS conference in July 2018. (Photo by GIANLUIGI GUERCIA/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)
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The war in Ukraine has prompted Western countries to draw geopolitical boundaries and called on nations around the world to condemn the war.
But South Africa, which was one of 35 countries to abstain in a UN vote condemning the war in Ukraine last year, has chosen to adopt a neutral stance.
Foreign Minister Antony Blinken held a telephone conversation with his South African counterpart earlier this week during which they reportedly discussed the upcoming anniversary and Minister Naledi Pandor’s support for a peaceful solution to the war, a selection of the talks said.
But the reading made no mention of joint exercises with China or Russia — two of the US’s biggest opponents who are vying for greater influence on the African continent as their relations with the West grow strained.
In a statement to Fox News Digital on Friday, a State Department spokesman said the department noted with “concern” South Africa’s decision to hold joint exercises with Russia and China.
“We encourage South Africa to cooperate militarily with other democracies that share our mutual commitment to human rights and the rule of law,” the spokesman added.
The Russian frigate Admiral Gorshkov docked in the port of Cape Town, South Africa on Tuesday February 14, 2023, en route to South Africa’s east coast, to conduct naval exercises with the South African and Chinese navies. The exercise began on Friday, February 17, 2023, a demonstration of the countries’ close ties amid Russia’s war in Ukraine and China’s strained relationship with the West. (AP Photo/Nardus Engelbrecht) ((AP Photo/Nardus Engelbrecht))
But Hudson argued that Washington’s lobbying, private or public, to cut ties with its main opponents could only complicate the situation.
“South Africa is not unique in the position it holds among Africans,” Hudson said. “They don’t want to be caught between great powers. They want to be able to choose and define their foreign relations and not be put under pressure.”
China has for years established itself across the continent, employing various lending schemes that often result in Beijing’s growing influence as poor nations struggle to repay loan commitments – a system dubbed “debt-trap diplomacy.”
But Russia’s increasing interest in the African continent has Western officials concerned.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (L) shakes hands with South Africa’s Minister for International Relations and Cooperation Naledi Pandor (R) during a news conference following their meeting at the OR Tambo Building in Pretoria January 23, 2023.
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Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has visited the continent twice this year alone, including South Africa in January.
Earlier this month he explained that the West had failed to isolate Moscow from Africa after his second tour.
Blinken traveled to South Africa in August, where he campaigned for the end of apartheid and met with Pandor for a joint press conference.
But Blinken’s reception by the South African government did not appear to be greeted as warmly as Lavrov’s visit earlier this month. During a joint press conference, the international minister accused the US and its Western allies of “having a purpose [of] paternalism towards bullying” when it came to the war in Ukraine.
“It’s a bit ironic that South Africa, while railing against the West for its sort of historical hegemony, is allying itself with malicious actors,” Hudson said, adding that the drills, which began Friday, are just the latest “repudiation.” of all” are the advertisements made by the Biden administration in South Africa.”
Over the past 20 years, the US has provided over $7 billion in AIDS assistance to South Africa alone, not counting the other millions of dollars in humanitarian assistance Washington continues to provide annually.
It’s unclear how much aid Russia or China gives to South Africa each year, but Hudson said this is at the heart of Washington’s woes in Africa.
“We in the United States view our relationship in South Africa and with Africa as some kind of aid dependent – it’s not an equal relationship,” he said. “It’s a donor-recipient relationship.
“While Russia and China are building ties on an equal footing,” he added. “They are not sending aid to these countries. They do business, they do security business, they make investments, they build political alliances that we just don’t do in the United States.”
Russia’s close ties with South Africa date back to the apartheid era, when Moscow supported the African National Congress (ANC) in its fight against the oppressive government.
BRICS foreign ministers are meeting in preparation for the heads of state summit between July 25 and 27, 2018. (STRINGER/AFP via Getty Images)
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US support for the South African government in the early days of apartheid in the late 1940s was largely due to the government’s support of anti-Communist ideals – an issue of immense concern to Washington as the US-Russia Cold War began.
Although the US eventually also sanctioned the South African government for supporting the end of apartheid in 1986, Russia reportedly continued to provide official and unofficial financial support to the ANC for decades after apartheid ended.
Russia has also made efforts to renew diplomatic ties with South Africa amid Western isolation.
“South Africa will have its cake and will eat it too,” Hudson declared. “They will accept humanitarian aid from us. They will accept investment from the Chinese. They will take energy deals from the Russians.
“For them there is no internal contradiction because they want a multilateral world,” he added. “The question is, is Washington ready to accept that?
“And I think the bottom line is, if Washington isn’t willing to accept that, it’s going to be cut out of South Africa,” Hudson said.
The South African Embassy in Washington, DC has not responded to Fox News Digital’s request for comment.