US Republican lawmakers launch bill denouncing South Africa’s naval exercises with China and Russia

6285

On 21 February, a new piece of legislation was introduced in the United States Congress — in the House of Representatives — by Representative John James, a Congressman from the state of Michigan, which, if passed, would make the US mandated to take a stand against South Africa.

The Bill – House Resolution 145 (referred to as HR145) — in the 118th Congress, denounces South Africa’s naval Exercise Mosi II with China and Russia. The Bill is “Opposing the Republic of South Africa’s hosting of military exercises with the People’s Republic of China and the Russian Federation and calling on the Biden administration to conduct a thorough review of the United States-South Africa relationship.”

The progress this legislation has made, so far, in moving through the legislative process, is that it has been introduced and has now been referred to the House Committee on Foreign Affairs. It is sponsored by the Republican Congressman, John James. It has five additional Republican lawmakers who are also backing the Bill; Representatives Christopher H Smith, of New Jersey, Thomas H Kean, of New Jersey, Cory Mills, of Florida, James R Baird, of Indiana, and Young Kim, of California. No legislator from the Democratic Party has yet shown support for the Bill.

China, Russia, Ukraine, and the United States all have a history with South Africa which date back decades and have resulted in numerous land, sea and air exercises, but none has been as controversial as Mosi II, as it coincided with the first anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

That South Africa decided to go ahead with the exercise has caused a storm of controversy, especially as South Africa has declined some US-led exercises. “Invitations to participate in exercises Obangame Express 23 and Cutlass Express 23 were extended to South Africa,” Rear Admiral Chase Patrick, director of Maritime Headquarters at US Naval Forces Europe-Africa, at the US Sixth Fleet confirmed.

Patrick told defenceWeb, “We cannot comment on any nation’s decision to participate. However, we understand that each of our partners must balance their own long-planned schedules when considering the timing of participation. We also consciously do not put our partners in the position to choose between the United States and other nations when determining the best way to protect their territorial waters or maritime interests. Our goal remains focused on supporting African-led solutions to these transnational maritime issues.”

The introduction of HR145, shows some Republican lawmakers hold a different view, standing for their constituents.

HR145’s “document reads more like an act of desperation and act of coercion trying to redirect South Africa’s position towards Ukraine and South Africa’s position towards Russia,” said Jasmine Opperman, an independent security expert on Africa. What is more, from her perspective, the Resolution reads as though the US is trying to strong-arm South Africa. Opperman said, “Sadly, though, it’s prescriptive nature. Herein lies the problem for the United States. These resolutions will simply [have a] more firm stance by the South African government on its current position, and it will not in any way, redirect its position [to be] more inclined to what the United States wants.”

HR145 “opposes South Africa’s decision to host military exercises with the People’s Republic of China and the Russian Federation from February 17 to February 24, 2023; calls on the Government of South Africa to — cancel all future military exercises with the People’s Republic of China and Russia and rejoin United States-led exercises, such as the Cutlass Express; respect the United Nations charter and publicly oppose Russia’s unjustified and unprovoked invasion of Ukraine; strengthen its political resilience to reject the Chinese Communist Party’s authoritarian vision for South Africa; and maintain its national sovereignty by reducing its reliance on Chinese companies in key sectors such as information and communication technology,” amongst others.

It is unlikely that Resolution HR145 will pass, especially as it has been sponsored by junior representatives who have little influence in the House of Representatives. But, sources told Daily Maverick that the resolution shows the US believes South Africa is no longer non-aligned and has chosen Russia’s side. A new bill is expected to come before Congress to designate Russia as a State Sponsor of Terrorism, which would have profound implications for Russia’s partners like South Africa.

Dean Macpherson, Democratic Alliance Shadow Minister of Trade, Industry and Competition, said the opposition party is deeply concerned about resolution HR145 as “a result of the South African government’s decision to hold joint military exercises with the Russian Federation and its refusal to condemn Russia’s unjustified and unprovoked invasion of Ukraine in the UN General Assembly.

“The actions of the ANC are resulting in an increasingly tense relationship with the United States. This is confirmed by the Resolution calling on the Biden Administration to ‘conduct a thorough review of the current and future status of the United States-South Africa bilateral relationship’. The DA is concerned that this resolution may also place the benefits which South Africa receives from the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) at risk.

“AGOA provides duty and quota-free access to many products South Africa exports to the United States. In 2021, South African AGOA exports were valued at R2.7 billion. The agreement therefore serves as a significant boost to our local economy and a vital lifeline for many of our most vulnerable and developing industries. Worryingly, this resolution calls on the United States Government to provide Congress with a detailed account of the economic benefits South Africa derives from its inclusion in AGOA. This suggests that the United States Congress is considering the possible removal of the South Africa from the ambit of AGOA.”

Macpherson stated that, “it is clear that the ANC is more concerned with maintaining good relations with Russia than doing what is in the best interests of the South African people and international relations generally. As a result, the DA will be doing everything in our power to prevent the further decimation of the South African economy at the hands of outdated ANC ideology.”

Steven Gruzd, head of Africa-Russia Project and African Governance and Diplomacy Programme at the SA Institute of International Affairs, is reported by IOL as saying that Resolution HR145 could backfire and draw South Africa closer to Russia and China.

“Europeans are also not happy. South Africa is taking a risk through these exercises. It may get away with it, but may also face some sort of trade or investment retaliation. The timing is not advantageous to South Africa. The world’s attention will be drawn to these drills on the very anniversary of the Russian invasion. It seems insensitive at least, and provocative at best.”

Exercise Mosi II took place from 17 to 27 February off Richards Bay and Durban, with the sea phase taking part between 25 and 27 February. The Russian Ministry of Defence stated that “The participants practised forming a multinational squadron of warships, joint tactical manoeuvring in different ranks and battle orders, and mine defence tasks during a sea crossing with firing at a target simulating a buoyant mine in the three-day exercises.”

Russian, Chinese and South African warships conducted artillery firing at a mock naval target, trained to free a captured ship with hostages, assist a ship in distress at sea and personnel afloat.

A number of exercises on the board of the Russian frigate Admiral Gorshkov involved a Ka-27 ship-based helicopter.

Russia was represented at the exercises by Admiral Gorshkov frigate and the Northern Fleet medium-sized tanker Kama. Chinese Navy was represented by Rizhao frigate, Huainan destroyer and the logistics vessel Kekesilihu, while the South African Navy was represented by Mandi frigate.

Pearl Matibe is a Washington, DC-based foreign correspondent, and media commentator with expertise on US foreign policy and international security. You may follow her on Twitter: @PearlMatibe