Washington Struggles to Secure African Allies Amid South African Military Drills with Russia and China

South Africa conducted joint naval operations with Russia and China this past Friday, drawing international criticism and questions about its devotion to Western allies.

With the first anniversary of Russia’s tragic invasion of Ukraine fast approaching, the upcoming ten days of military drills point to the failure of the U.S. government’s efforts to court South Africa.

According to Cameron Hudson, a senior associate at The Africa Program, the Center for Strategic and International Studies, South Africa wants to help make the globe more multipolar. Many feel that the world has been served poorly by either a bipolar or unipolar perspective.

According to Hudson, this approach entails that South Africa will choose to cooperate with any nation that best fits it, including the United States, Russia, and China, notwithstanding hostile disagreements; this is a geopolitical strategy that Western nations have a hard time embracing.

He contended that in today’s multipolar world, all partners are valid.

Western countries have drawn geopolitical lines in response to the conflict in Ukraine, and they have urged other countries to do the same.

South Africa, however, has decided to take a neutral posture, despite being one of the 35 countries that abstained from a vote last year condemning the war in Ukraine at the United Nations.

The State Department expressed displeasure with South Africa’s plan to perform joint drills with Russia and China in a statement released to the media.

Hudson cautioned that the issue might get more complex if Washington engaged in private or public lobbying to discourage relations with its greatest opponents.

According to Hudson, South Africa prefers not to be cornered between powerful nations and would rather be free to choose their external alliances.

For many years, China has been expanding its influence across Africa by providing developing countries with loans they often find difficult to repay – deemed debt-trap diplomacy.

But, Western authorities are worried about Russia’s growing interest in Africa.

Sergey Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister, has made two trips to Africa this year, most recently to South Africa in January. After his second trip to Africa, he announced the West failed to isolate Russia.

The South African administration did not appear as enthusiastic about Blinken’s visit in August last year, where he advocated the end of apartheid and held a press conference alongside Pandor, as they were about Lavrov’s earlier this month. The foreign minister accused the United States and its Western allies of patronizing bullying in handling the Ukraine conflict.

The drills that began on Friday are simply the latest refusal of all the courting that the Biden administration has been doing in South Africa, according to Hudson, who noted the irony of South Africa’s allying itself with hostile actors while railing against the West for its historical hegemony.

The United States has provided around $7 billion to South Africa in the previous 20 years for AIDS relief, in addition to the annual humanitarian aid of millions of dollars Washington continues to give to the country.

The annual amount of help provided by Russia and China to South Africa is unknown.

According to Hudson, the root of Washington’s problems in Africa is that the United States sees its ties with South Africa and the rest of Africa as resembling that of a giver and a recipient rather than a partnership.

He elaborated by saying that Russian and Chinese ties are maturing into those of equals. Instead of delivering aid, they engage in commercial activity, security agreements, and investment in these nations. They are forming political alliances differently than the United States.

Since Moscow supported the African National Congress in its struggle against apartheid, Russia has maintained close connections with South Africa.

Russia’s official and unofficial financial aid of the ANC reportedly lasted for decades after apartheid ended, even though the United States also eventually sanctioned the South African government in support of abolishing apartheid in 1986.

Facing isolation from the West, Russia has sought to revive diplomatic ties with South Africa.

According to Hudson, South Africa accepts aid from the United States in humanitarian relief, investments from China, and energy deals from Russia.

He said they are consistent with themselves because they seek a multilateral global order. As far as Hudson is concerned, the United States will be marginalized from South Africa if Washington is unwilling to accept that.