Russia, China, South Africa Joint Naval Exercises: A Violation of Neutrality?

This Friday, navies from Russia, China and South Africa will conduct joint naval exercises in the Indian Ocean off the coast of Durban, South Africa.[0] This marks the second time these governments have held joint exercises, the first being in 2019.[1] While South Africa claims that these exercises are merely a way of declaring its neutrality vis-à-vis Russia’s war, critics argue that the 10-day military drills will do little to benefit South Africa and will instead act as a propaganda boost for Moscow.[1]

The Russian frigate Admiral Gorshkov has caused a stir with its arrival in Cape Town, as it is armed with the new Zircon hypersonic cruise missile.[2] This is the first time that the drills will include the Admiral Gorshkov frigate carrying Zircon hypersonic missiles, which were first tested in late 2021.[2]

The Admiral Gorshkov’s arrival has sparked a wave of protests from Ukrainian protesters, who sailed a yacht close to the Russian warship in Cape Town’s harbor in protest.[3] South African protesters are also expected to demonstrate at the Russian Consulate in Cape Town on Friday.[3]

Foreign Minister Naledi Pandor at first condemned Russia's invasion of Ukraine, but President Cyril Ramaphosa forced her to retract her statement and receive her Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov with all honors at the end of January.[4] This has caused alarm among Western officials as they perceive the joint military drill as contradicting South Africa's professed non-alignment.[4]

South Africa is interested in strengthening ties with Russia and China as permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, and is part of the BRICS group with Russia, India, China and Brazil.[4] However, the analyst proposed a more constructive approach by the West, which should start by accepting that “African governments and African nations can make their own decisions,” so that they do not feel they must “toe the line with whoever wants to bring funds in.”[5]

It is possible that President Ramaphosa's approach to the Russian issue could turn out to be an error, and be a divergence from the historical South African foreign policy.[4] By not adding its voice to the UN votes and resolutions concerning Ukraine, South Africa has lost an opportunity to be the moral compass that it once was.[5] It remains to be seen what repercussions there will be for South Africa, as many Western diplomats see the joint military exercise with Russia as a violation of its neutrality.[3]

0. “Russia Navy frigate Admiral Gorshkov trains torpedo defense in Atlantic” Navy Recognition, 13 Feb. 2023,

1. “Russia, China And South Africa To Hold Naval Exercises In Indian Ocean”, 14 Feb. 2023,

2. “Russian warship with hypersonic missiles arrives in South Africa” msnNOW, 14 Feb. 2023,

3. “Russia to test missile in drills with China and South Africa” The Washington Post, 17 Feb. 2023,

4. “South Africa: Russia-China drills strain ties with West” DW (English), 16 Feb. 2023,

5. “South Africa – Russian-China Drills Strain Ties With West” AllAfrica – Top Africa News, 17 Feb. 2023,