Arrival of Chinese Navy taskforce in Cape Town a sign of closer China/SA ties

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The arrival, in Cape Town, of a flotilla of warships of the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN), better known today as the Chinese Navy, is yet one more sign of a closer relationship being forged by the South African government with the Chinese regime. This is the seventh known arrival this year alone, of at least one vessel associated with the Chinese Navy, in South African ports, and the second arrival of a complete flotilla of Chinese warships.

The Chinese warships that arrived were the official anti-piracy flotilla that is a permanent fixture of the Gulf of Oman, Gulf of Aden, and the Arabian Sea, that China has been dispatching to that area since 2008. The arriving vessels were led by the Chinese Naval Ship (CNS) ‘Nanning’ (DDG162), a Type 052DL Destroyer, CNS ‘Sanya’ (FFG552), a Type 054A Frigate, and CNS ‘Weishanhu’ (AOE887), a Type 903 Replenishment Auxiliary, and together they are collectively known as the PLAN 43rd Escort Task Force (ETF).

Other than satellite tracking ships, naval research ships and supposed spy ships, one tends to forget that earlier this year yet another flotilla of three PLAN vessels arrived in Richards Bay to take part in the controversial Exercise Mosi II naval exercise with elements of the South African Navy, and visiting Russian Navy warships. This was the PLAN 42nd Escort Task Force (ETF), and consisted of CNS ‘Huainan’ (DDG123), a Type 052DL Destroyer, CNS ‘Rizhao’ (FFG598), a Type 054A Frigate, and CNS ‘Kekexilihu’ (AOE968), a Type 903A Replenishment Auxiliary.

The Russian warships were the frigate ‘Admiral Gorshkov’, and the fleet oiler ‘Kama’. The exercise drew criticism from around the world, especially as both visiting navies were both conducting warlike sabre rattling with their neighbours, with the PLAN using navy assets to threaten Taiwan’s independence, and the Russian Navy dispatching hypersonic missiles against civilian targets as part of their invasion of Ukraine. All this at a time when the ANC government was trying to project a pretext of non-alignment and neutrality to a skeptical world.

The 42nd ETF had departed from the naval port of Qingdao, in China’s eastern Shandong Province, back on 21 September 2022. The 43rd ETF had departed from the naval port of Zhanjiang, in China’s southern Guangdong Province on 10 January 2023, to relieve the 42nd ETF of their anti-piracy patrol duties. They arrived in the Gulf of Aden on 2 February, and over the next two days both the 42nd ETF and the 43rd ETF had conducted exercises together, to bring the 43rd ETF up to operational readiness. On 5th February, the official handover took place, and the 42nd ETF departed for Richards Bay, and their part in Exercise Mosi II.

The flagship of the 43rd ETF is CNS ‘Nanning’, and after one month on station, she temporarily left the 43rd ETF, and headed for the Iranian Naval port of Chabahar. There she joined forces with, none other than the Russian Frigate ‘Admiral Gorshkov’, and the Russian Auxiliary ‘Kama’, both of which had sailed from Richards Bay, at the conclusion of Exercise Mosi II. They were all to join in with an Iranian Navy flotilla and take part in Exercise Security Belt 2023‘ between 15 and 19 March.

The theme of Exercise Security Belt 2023 was promulgated as ‘Working together to create security, peace, and regional stability’, and this in the Persian Gulf. Ironically, one of the naval drills carried out was that an Iranian Naval vessel would simulate being a hijacked merchant vessel, in the Persian Gulf, and where Marines from CNS ‘Nanning’ would act as the rescuers. How ironic that the Iranians would practice such a drill, and follow it up with the actual illegal hijacking of merchant ships in the Strait of Hormuz.

Unlike the other two warships of the 43rd ETF, this was the first such time that ‘CNS ‘Nanning’ has participated in these regular PLAN anti-piracy operations. After the conclusion of Exercise Security Belt 2023, CNS ‘Nanning’ returned to her primary duties on anti-piracy patrols. On 19 and 20 April she called in to the new PLAN naval port at Djibouti, the first fixed overseas naval port that the Chinese Government had set up. There she took on the necessary food uplifts, stores, fresh water and bunkers that she needed.

Not long afterwards, chaos erupted in Sudan with two military factions facing each other down in a ‘de facto’ civil war. As with all other nations, the Chinese Government made plans to evacuate as many of their citizens as they could, and who did not need to remain in Sudan. Both CNS ‘Nanning’ and CNS ‘Weishanhu’ were sent to carry out the evacuation, and both arrived at Port Sudan, on the Red Sea coast on 26 April.

Over the next three days, both warships carried out two successful evacuation missions, taking a total of 1 171 people, including 940 Chinese citizens, across the Red Sea to the safety of Jeddah, in Saudi Arabia, where they could be repatriated back to China. The first mission was almost exclusively one to evacuate Chinese citizens, as of the 678 persons evacuated, a total of 668 of them were Chinese citizens. On the second evacuation mission, they took out 493 people, of which 221 of them were foreign nationals.

Interestingly, on the conclusion of this important humanitarian mission in the Sudan, a spokesperson for the PLAN stated that “the PLAN’s missions in these critical, and difficult times, not only reflect its rapid response capability, but also confirm the necessity and purpose of China’s construction of a ‘Bluewater Navy’ to safeguard national sovereignty, security, and development interests, rather than for hegemony, or expansion of power.”

On 28 April, the 44th Escort Task Force (ETF) sailed from the naval port of Zhoushan, in China’s eastern Zhejiang Province, to relieve the 43rd ETF. The 44th ETF comprised CNS ‘Zibo’ (DDG156), a Type 052DL Destroyer, CNS ‘Jingzhou’ (FFG532), a Type 054A Frigate, and CNS ‘Qiandaohu’ (AOE886), a Type 903 Replenishment Auxiliary. After being relieved, the 43rd ETF sailed north up the Red Sea, and entered the Suez Canal, entering the Mediterranean Sea, and the start of a near circumnavigation of Africa.

It is not unknown for the some of the ETF of the PLAN to conduct ‘fly the flag’ visits on completion of their anti-piracy patrols, especially around the African continent, as part of their diplomatic mission to increase their relations with African governments. Surprisingly, the first stop of the 43rd ETF was at the Spanish port of Cadiz, where they arrived on 9 June for a four day visit. The choice of Cadiz, is that it is the home of the Spanish Navy, and just over the bay from the US Navy base at Rota. Such a visit would send a signal to the US Navy, and NATO, that the PLAN has true Bluewater presence in any waters around the world.

On conclusion of this visit, the 43rd ETF conducted a planned set of five visits to West African nations. These were a five day visit to Abidjan, in the Ivory Coast, between 22 and 26 June. This was followed by a four day visit to Tema, in Ghana, between 28 June and 1 July. The third stop was a five day call at Lagos, in Nigeria, between 2 July and 6 July. Then it was on to Owendo in Gabon, for a four day stop between 8 and 11 July. The final call in West Africa was at Pointe Noire, in the Republic of Congo, for a five day stop between 14 and 18 July. From there, the three PLAN warships headed directly for Cape Town, where they arrived on 24 July.

On arrival, CNS ‘Nanning’ was the first to enter Cape Town harbour, and went directly into the Victoria Basin, and berthed at Jetty 2 opposite the V&A Waterfront. Such a thing had been banned by Transnet, the Cape Town Port Authority, who had previously stated that no more warships, or passenger liners, were to be berthed at the V&A, and all were to, henceforth, only utilise berths in the Duncan Dock.

Next in was CNS ‘Weishanhu’, who also berthed on the other side of Jetty 2, followed by CNS ‘Sanya’, which was double banked alongside CNS ‘Weishanhu’. To make these berths available to the 43rd ETF meant that Transnet had told both AMSOL vessels ‘SA Amandla’, and ‘Umkhuseli’ to vacate their berths, and for the cable ship ‘Leon Thevenin’ to do the same. As it happened, ‘Leon Thevenin’ was scheduled to depart for a cable operation off Mombasa in Kenya, and so her move to the Eastern Mole, to load cable, and take on bunkers, was fortuitous.

For ‘SA Amandla’, and ‘Umkhuseli’ they were sent into the Ben Schoeman Dock, and had to berth at the Dormac working berths of 501 and 502. However, 502 was occupied by the offshore supply vessel ‘Stratis Z’, which was undergoing a refit. She was shifted into the Duncan Dock, and put alongside the Repair Quay. Four vessels moved around the docks, to give room for the 43rd ETF.

CNS ‘Nanning’ is one of a large class of guided missile destroyer of the PLAN, which has 25 of the class in service, with a further six in various stages of build. She was built at the Jiangnan Shipyard at Shanghai, and was launched in February 2019, and commissioned in April 2021. She is 161 metres in length, with a displacement tonnage of 7 500 tons. Her propulsion is CODOG, which is ‘Combined Diesel Or Gas’, and she has two MTU 20V 956TB92 diesel engines producing 6 571 bhp (4 900 kW) each, and two QC-280 gas turbines producing 40 250 bhp (30 000 kW) each, and driving two fixed pitch propellers for a service speed of 30 knots.

Her main armament is a 130 mm gun, and a Type 1130, seven barreled, 30 mm gatling gun CIWS. Her missile armament includes a 24 cell, HQ-10 surface to air (SAM) missile, vertical launch system, and a 64 cell, vertical launch system capable of firing a mix of HHQ-9 SAM missiles, YJ-18 surface to surface (SSM) missiles, and CY-5 anti-ship (ASM) missiles.

She has a stern helideck, and a helicopter hangar, capable of operating a Harbin Z-20 helicopter, which is a Chinese copy of the American HH-60 Black Hawk helicopter. She has both a bow mounted sonar, and operates a towed sonar array. Her main combat radar system is a Type 346A, 3D Electronically Scanned Array Radar, together with a Type 518 Air Search Radar, and a Type 364 Surface Search Radar.

The Type 052DL Destroyer, is known by the NATO designation as a ‘Luyang III’ class, and ‘CNS Nanning’ is an upgrade of the Type 052C. She has an operational crew of 280, and an operating range of 4 500 nautical miles. Her design is multi-purpose, and she can be utilised for shore bombardment via her main gun, land attack via her missile armament, maritime patrol, airspace denial via her missile armament, and for bluewater fleet support.

After a three day stopover, which was the shortest stop of all seven planned ‘fly the flag’ visits, CNS ‘Nanning’ and the 43rd ETF sailed from Cape Town on 29 July, bound back to their home base in Zhanjiang in China, and the AMSOL vessels were allowed back to Jetty 2.

Written by Jay Gates and republished with permission from Africa Ports. The original article can be found here.