South Africa hosts China-South Africa Defence Committee

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South Africa has hosted the ninth meeting of the China-South Africa Defence Committee, which marks a continuation of the close defence ties between the two BRICS nations.

China’s defence ministry said the meeting was held from 29 November to 3 December and the two sides exchanged in-depth views on issues of common concern including the international and regional security situation, national defence and military development in each country, and bilateral military exchanges and cooperation between China and South Africa. The two sides also signed cooperation documents.

“Both sides spoke highly of the relations between the two countries and two militaries, and pledged to fully exploit the guiding and coordinating role of the China-South Africa Defence Committee mechanism under the strategic guidance of the heads of state, further tap the potential of cooperation, expand the cooperation fields, and add new connotations to the China-South Africa comprehensive strategic partnership, so as to make positive contributions to the international and regional security and stability,” the Chinese defence ministry stated.

The eighth China-South Africa Defence Committee meeting took place in Beijing from 21 to 23 August 2018 when General Li Zuocheng, member of China’s Central Military Commission (CMC) and chief of the Joint Staff Department under the CMC, met with General Solly Shoke, chief of the South African National Defence Force (SANDF).

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.

“By 2010, the fourth China–South Africa defence committee meeting in November expanded security co-operation on the continent. Under President Jacob Zuma, acknowledgement of China’s expanded role in peacekeeping and its supportive position on the UN Security Council and at the African Union (AU) has resulted in greater enthusiasm in military circles for co-operation,” the SAIIA added.

Defence ties between South Africa and China have been cosy for some time, with another indication of the strengthening military relationship evidenced by a high-level visit to SA Air Force (SAAF) headquarters in September this year by General Chang Dingqiu, Commander of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLA Air Force).

The engagement came after the 20-24 August BRICS Summit in Johannesburg during which President Cyril Ramaphosa hosted Chinese President Xi Jinping in a celebration of 25 years of diplomatic relations between the People’s Republic of China and South Africa. Jinping and Ramaphosa also co-chaired the China-Africa Leaders’ Dialogue in Johannesburg.

Dingqiu’s visit came just weeks after the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) Chief of Staff, Vice Admiral Hu Zhongming, paid a courtesy call to SA Navy (SAN) Chief Vice Admiral Monde Lobese at Naval Headquarters in Pretoria.

The visit was part of an official PLAN visit South Africa from 29 August to 1 September. The courtesy call strengthened relations between the navies, the SAN said. The SAN and the PLAN previously engaged in joint naval exercises including Exercise Mosi with Russia.

The PLA Vice Admiral’s visit was preceded by that of PLAN frigate CNS Sanya (a Type 054A warship). She was alongside at Cape Town’s V&A Waterfront on 24 July for three days as part of the Chinese PLAN 43rd Escort Task Force along with guided-missile destroyer Nanning and the supply ship Weishanhu.

In June, Chief of the SANDF, General Rudzani Maphwanya, was in Beijing where he met with China’s defence minister General Li Shangfu to discuss strengthening military-to-military relations.

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.

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.

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

As noted by SAIIA, since the signing of the Beijing Declaration in 2000, commercial transactions between South Africa’s armaments manufacturer Denel and the Chinese military increased. The PLA has taken delivery of South African technologies related to anti-aircraft gun ammunition, anti-tank guided missiles and air-to-air missiles. South Africa’s aerospace industry has also established strong links in China, such as in developing unmanned aerial vehicle programmes. Chinese pilots also received flight training from ex-South African air force and navy personnel in Mafikeng, starting in 2010.

“Nevertheless, research has shown that while there has been an increased exchange of military personnel there is little trade in military goods between the countries, as South Africa manufactures much of its own military equipment while sourcing the remainder from the European Union (EU). Despite its opening an office in Cape Town, the Chinese industrial equivalent to Denel has been notably unsuccessful in penetrating this market in South Africa,” SAIIA reported.