China and South Africa agree to strengthen military ties amid fresh visits

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South Africa and China enjoy close military ties, and will continue to strengthen bilateral defence relations, with South Africa’s naval chief currently visiting Beijing, and a Chinese navy frigate visiting Cape Town.

According to China Military Online, China’s Defence Minister Admiral Dong Jun met with Vice Admiral Monde Lobese, Chief of the South African Navy, at the Bayi Building in Beijing on Monday 20 May.

Jun said that although China and South Africa are separated by thousands of miles, they are like brothers, and under the guidance of their respective national leaders, “the China-South Africa Comprehensive Strategic Partnership has entered a golden age, providing opportunities and momentum to deepen mil-to-mil relations between the two sides.”

The Chinese military noted that cooperation between the two navies has especially taken the lead. For his part, Lobese said China is one of South Africa’s most important strategic partners, and the two countries have maintained close cooperation within the BRICS mechanism. South Africa is willing to work with the Chinese side to constantly advance the development of military relations, he added.

Lobese’s visit comes at the same time as a People’s Liberation Army (PLA) delegation embarked on a working visit to South Africa from 17 to 19 May. The South African National Defence Force (SANDF) said the aim was to conduct in-depth talks on strengthening cooperation between the two armed forces. Amongst the topics discussed were possible cooperation on international peacekeeping operations, maritime security and joint training and exercises.

The recent visits could also explain why a PLA Navy frigate is docked in Cape Town. On 16 May the Type 054A Frigate Chinese Navy Ship (CNS) CNS Xuchang (FFG536) arrived in Cape Town unannounced and with little public coverage.

The vessel was part of the 46th Naval Escort Task Force that was currently protecting shipping in the Gulf of Oman, along with her task force members the Type 052D destroyer CNS Jiaozuo (DDG163), and the Type 903A Fleet Auxiliary CNS Honghu (AOE906). The 46th Naval Escort Task Force sailed from the naval port of Zhanjiang on 21 February, to relieve the 45th Naval Escort Task Force operating in the Gulf of Aden, and off the coast of Somalia. They had arrived in their new operational area in early March, and by 4 March had been handed over the responsibilities of the security mission by the 45th Naval Escort Task Force.

On the assumption that CNS Xuchang carries out the standard PLAN five-day port visit, she will be in Cape Town until 21 May, which also assumes that she will then make a direct run back to the Gulf of Oman.

From 29 November to 3 December last year, South Africa has hosted the ninth meeting of the China-South Africa Defence Committee, marking a continuation of the close defence ties between the two BRICS nations, which also saw SA Air Force Chief Lieutenant General Wiseman Mbambo visit China in December to repay a courtesy visit to South Africa in September by General Chang Dingqiu, Commander of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLA Air Force).

China’s military ties with South Africa go back decades, as China supported the African National Congress (ANC) in its fight against apartheid, with the first batch of six uMkhonto weSizwe (MK) fighters going to China for military training in November 1961. As a consequence of this support during the liberation era, South Africa recognised the People’s Republic of China in January 1998, ending formal diplomatic relations with Taiwan.

The first meeting of the China–South Africa defence committee, a forum created in 2000 with the Pretoria Declaration, was held in April 2003. Only a year later a formal agreement was signed allowing for the training of South African soldiers and a donation of electronic equipment to the South African National Defence Force, the South African Institute of International Affairs (SAIIA) reported.

In recent years South African-China defence co-operation increased notably. In June 2014, for example, three vessels comprising the 16th Escort Task Group of the Chinese PLA Navy visited Cape Town and subsequently numerous naval task groups stopped in the Cape. This culminated in the first multinational maritime exercise (Exercise Mosi) between China, Russia and South Africa in November 2019. The second edition of Mosi was held in early 2023.

Also in recent years, high-level PLA delegations have visited South Africa, with reciprocal visits by SANDF personnel to China, in line with China-South Africa Defence Committee meeting outcomes.