On 17 February 2023 the trilateral naval exercise ‘Mosi II’ began in which, up to 27 February, Chinese, Russian and South African naval units will conduct manoeuvres off the east coast of South Africa in the area between Durban and the border with Mozambique.

The first ‘Mosi’ deployment involved the three navies exercising in the sea area around the Cape of Good Hope in November 2019. The exercise name, ‘Mosi’, means ‘smoke‘ in the Tswana language.

South Africas Chinese and Russian partners 

The veil over the details of the exercise has not yet been completely lifted by the South African authorities, although the participation of three Chinese ships has been announced, as has that of the Russian frigate Admiral Gorshkov (hull number 454), which has been on a long-range deployment with the tanker Kama since the end of 2022 but is now taking part in its first international exercise. After a port call in Cape Town during the weekend of 18/19 February, Admiral Gorshkov, which is armed with Zircon hypersonic anti-ship cruise missiles, was expected in Richards Bay. It is not known to what extent Kama is involved in the exercise.

The Chinese participants in the exercise include the Type 054A frigate Rizhao (598) and probably the Type 052D guided-missile destroyer Huainan (hull number 123) and Type 903 supply ship Kekexilihu (968). These ships form Task Force 42 of China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN), which left Quingdao on 21 September 2022 and, after relieving Task Force 41 in the Gulf of Aden on 15 October, operated along the East African coast, among other places. It is therefore likely that these represent the Chinese contribution to ‘Mosi II’.

From the South African Navy the frigate Mendi (F148), the 50-year-old survey vessel Protea (A324) and the recently commissioned inshore patrol vessel King Sekhukhune I (P1571) are being deployed. The patrol vessel Tekwane (P1554) is also being used for port calls at Richards Bay.

Exercise with Zirkon: live fire or dry run? 

The exercise schedule provides for a port phase in Richards Bay, during which, in addition to the provisioning of the guest pilots and the conferences preparing for the exercise, there will also be a number of naval activities (such as concerts, sporting events and demonstrations) that are customary during such port calls. The port call will be followed by exercises at sea from 25 February, which will include search-and-rescue, formation keeping and gunnery exercises.

The Russian news agency TASS reported the test firing of a Zircon missile from Admiral Gorshkov in early February as part of the exercise off the South African coast. This was widely perceived as a ‘live-fire’ demonstration, which has so far been denied by Pretoria. The Russian wording “combat training launches of the hypersonic anti-ship missile Zirkon for the first time as part of international exercises” can also be interpreted as a ‘normal’ weapon deployment training routine in which the chain of command and combat procedures, such as opening missile launch bays, is practised without actual live firing. Such training has already been reported several times on the websites of the Russian Ministry of Defence during the voyage of Admiral Gorshkov.

The Russian frigate Admiral Gorshkov leaving Cape Town on 15 February 2023 to take part in the trilateral ‘Mosi II’ naval manoeuvres. (Photo: Russian Consulate)

South African ambivalence 

The fact that the first anniversary of the Russian invasion of Ukraine falls during the ‘Mosi II’ manoeuvres has drawn criticism of the South African government not only internationally but also domestically. The government opposition fears that relations with important Western partners such as the United States, United Kingdom and European Union will be affected. National and international critics see Russian participation in the exercise, especially the participation of the Zircon-armed Admiral Gorshkov, as tacit support from the South African government for Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine.

During the UN General Assembly vote on Resolution A/RES/ES-11/1 Aggression against Ukraine on 2 March 2022, South Africas was among the 35 countries that abstained.

Meanwhile, Pretoria has allowed a mega yacht linked to sanctioned Russian oligarch Alexey Mordashov to enter Cape Town, whihe sanctioned Russian cargo ship Lady R was allowed to call at Simons Town: the country’s largest naval base and home of the South African Navy’s Fleet Command.

Geopolitically, Pretoria oscillates between its orientation towards Europe and its ties to socialist-communist systems that grew during the country’s anti-apartheid struggle, when ideological, financial and military support was given to African National Congress cadres in Moscow, Beijing, Hanoi and Havana. Outwardly receptive to Washington, distrust of the so-called West prevails within government circles and South Africa has repeatedly criticised the United States for its ‘colonialist’ behaviour towards African countries and for trying to impose its political agenda around the globe. In addition to the sympathies of political actors in Pretoria for Russia and China, the role of both as spoilers vis-à-vis the United States could be another explanation for Pretoria’s attitude.

Russia in Africa 

Russia is increasingly trying to expand its influence in Africa, but while Moscow acts with few scruples in the Sahel, the Kremlin can be more subtle in South Africa. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov’s visit to South Africa in January 2023 came off without a fuss and by mutual consent. As Moscow looks for more partners and bases in Africa – for its mercenary groups as well as for its armed forces – it has been able to expand its presence in unstable African regions and conflict areas, including Mali, Libya and the Central African Republic. Russia’s commitment to setting up a naval base in Port Sudan on the Red Sea seems unwavering and in mid-February it was announced that the military council in Khartoum had approved the construction of the base.

Meanwhile, African waters in the Atlantic are increasingly used for sanction-busting activities in the Russian oil trade – especially in adverse weather conditions. While the central North Atlantic was known as a hub for so-called ship-to-ship (STS) operations, in which ships carrying oil from Russia offload onto other less conspicuous tankers, these operations are now shifting to more southern areas. Moscow can thus circumvent sanctions as well as price caps imposed by the EU.

The Kremlin’s intensive diplomatic work – Lavrov’s travels have already taken him to Africa twice in 2023 – will be topped by the second Russia-Africa summit in St Petersburg at the end of July. Africa is thus becoming a ‘living’  example for the Kremlin that Russia is far removed from the kind of global isolation desired by Europe and the United States. Military co-operation in the ‘Mosi II’ exercise underlines this reality, while also revealing the importance of Africa as a supplier of raw materials.

Ultimately, the voyage of Admiral Gorshkov is little more than a propaganda action, yet the Kremlin is demonstrating that it is capable of global operations and knows how to both impress and cause concern at the same time by rehearsing the use of its advanced weaponry.

The Russian frigate Admiral Gorshkov arriving in Cape Town on 13 February 2023 for a port visit prior.
(Photo: Russian Consulate)

And China? 

China, meanwhile, has been cultivating countries in Africa for some time as it looks to secure resources vital for its industrial and economic progress, with the Chinese military also playing a role in this. China’s African initiatives follow a familiar pattern: entering into semi-military alliances, constructing or using port facilities for civil-military purposes, stationing troop contingents, participating in missions for peacemaking military operations or as part of disaster management (‘military operations other than war’) and supplying arms to the region. In 2017 China opened its first African base in Djibouti, while at the end of 2022 its attempts to establish bases in Equatorial Guinea and Mauritius became known.

Under these circumstances South Africa is a business opportunity for China. The fact that the Chinese units participating in ‘Mosi II’ represent a permanent presence in the Indian Ocean as a task force confirms the approach outlined above.

The Moskow-Peking axis 

Finally, in connection with the current naval exercise on South Africa’s coast, Russian-Chinese co-operation must be taken into account, with ‘Mosi’ part of a growing entente between Moscow and Beijing. In this context the collective action goes beyond the joint zone of influence in the Western Pacific. In recent years the Russian Navy and the PLAN have made joint appearances in the Indian Ocean, while in December 2019, just after ‘Mosi I’, there was a trilateral naval exercise with Iranian naval forces.

Most recently, in December 2022, Chinese and Russian naval forces exercised together in the East China Sea.

Hans Uwe Mergener