Lobese reaches out to Chinese Navy

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China, in the form of the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN), last month became the latest country to be ticked off by SA Navy (SAN) Chief, Vice Admiral Monde Lobese, in his ongoing efforts at building “mutually beneficial relations” with other navies.

Since taking over from Mosiwa Hlongwane in December 2022, strengthening existing relations and developing new ones has been a feature of his leadership, and this included a visit to the PLAN in China between 18 and 25 May.

South Africa’s senior sailor has visited and received visits from fleet representatives of Egypt, Nigeria, India, Brazil, Cuba, the United States (US) and the People’s Republic of China (PRC), among others.

Contact of this type allows the SA Navy to benchmark, compare, and evaluate itself against other navies on a variety of maritime defence and mandate related issues, the SA Navy said. Ship maintenance and acquisition, technological developments, facilities and training programmes are regular agenda items. SAN Public Relations notes further Lobese “leverages these engagements” to explore feasible solutions and learn lessons, including “how they deal with many of the same well-documented difficulties that the SAN faces”.

The engagements are either in the form of reciprocal visits, joint exercises, sharing expertise, student exchange programmes and naval infrastructure capacity. Engagements are planned to expand, especially as regards “equipment, platforms and ships”. On ships, refitting and “spare parts supply” are highlighted.

While in China in May, Lobese and his delegation met the South African Ambassador to the PRC Dr Siyabonga Cwele; PRC Minister of Defence Admiral Dong Jun; PLAN Chief Admiral Hu Zhongming; North Sea Feet Political Commissar Vice Admiral Fu Yaoquan; Shanghai Naval Base Political Commissar, Rear Admiral Wang Yu; and Rear Admiral Liu, Naval Medical University Headmaster. The SAN delegation itinerary included calls on a number of PRC defence industry companies.

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.”

A positive outcome is a planned BRICS+ (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa, Iran, Egypt, Ethiopia, and the United Arab Emirates) meeting in Egypt later this year. This, according to a SAN statement, is in line with China as strategic partner as well as “building bridges of friendship and collaboration” particularly with BRICS+ fleets.

Lobese’s visit to China was prompted by Zhongming’s September 2023 visit to South Africa. Lobese promised that the SA Navy would continue to strengthen relations with the People’s Liberation Army Navy and encouraged more reciprocal visits between the two navies. To this end, the Chinese frigate Xuchang visited South Africa from 16 to 19 May this year and will return between 10 and 12 June.

The vessel is part of the 46th Naval Escort Task Force that is 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).

To further strengthen cooperation with other navies, the Chief of the Navy plans to host a Sea Power Africa Symposium later this year, when world fleets will meet to share experiences on how to battle marine threats. Lobese He also intends to invite other worldwide navies to join in the scheduled Navy Festival 2024, which will take place later this year.

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.