A joint 10-day naval drill involving South Africa, Russia and China, in the Indian Ocean began on Friday. It is set to last 10 days
China and Russia have clearly made inroads in the “global south,” countries that are not only in the southern hemisphere but also were either European imperial colonies or are poorer and were considered “third world.” These states that are seen as victims, or were once part of the non-aligned movement during the Cold War – and where Russia and China have made inroads due to their position as “anti-imperialist,” or helping poorer countries against the West.
The challenge that the West faces in uprooting the Russians in places like South Africa is serious. CNN reported that the drills are “war games that South Africa says have long been planned.” Yet “the timing of the exercises has Western diplomats privately incensed and publicly critical, and they risk an embarrassing backlash for the government in Pretoria.”
“The timing of these exercises is particularly unfortunate and will focus the world’s attention on South Africa during the anniversary of the war. I don’t think Western nations are going to let this one slide.”Steven Gruzd
Steven Gruzd, head of the African Governance and Diplomacy Program at the South African Institute of International Affairs was quoted in the CNN report as saying: “The timing of these exercises is particularly unfortunate and will focus the world’s attention on South Africa during the anniversary of the war. I don’t think Western nations are going to let this one slide.”
Russia, China gaining support against the US in the global south to upend the New World Order
The quiet support for Russia among many African and Asian countries is indicative of a wider trend. Russia has openly said it wants to reduce US hegemony, upending decades of American global power from the end of the Cold War.
China and Russia are on the same page, and they have many friends – like Iran – that want to see the unilateral power of America upended. The goal isn’t to partner with other Western countries, but rather to partner with those that are openly against the US.
Russia and China have discarded old policies of the 1990s and early 2000s where they pretended to want ties with the US; former Chinese leaders wanted to “bide time” and wait and Russia once did a “reset” with the US, just as Iran agreed to a “deal” back in 2015.
Everything changed when Russia invaded Ukraine last year because it sensed a shift in world power as it declined in the West. It has therefore been surprised at the unity of the West in support of back Ukraine, especially as that manifests in tanks and weapons flowing toward Kyiv.
Russia garners support from its 1960s era of being anti-imperialist. In October, many countries – especially in Africa – abstained from voting against Russia in its annexation of Ukrainian territories. Abstentions is its goal, part of the old UN old boys club of countries that holds quiet support for each other. This band of brothers has also put dictators on international forums, like the UN Human Rights Council.
Russia is doing this in the global south as well, under various guises, such as claiming to care about state sovereignty. However, if it actually cared about these values, it wouldn’t fight Ukraine, but recognize its sovereign borders.
Though Russia has inroads in Africa, it doesn’t yet have all the countries under its influence – some still do side with the West. Latin America has also generally sided with the West at the UN on the Ukraine issue. However, Russia has had more success among Central and Southeast Asian countries. What this illustrates is that despite the sovereignty of these countries, they didn’t mind at all seeing Ukraine brutally invaded.
The US accused Russia of crimes against humanity, but it appears that international human rights forums – including at the UN – have often been hijacked by Russia and China, which this makes it harder for countries to hold basic stances, such as: ‘The invasion of Ukraine is illegal and wrong; and annexation of territory is unacceptable.
What this also does is hold up a mirror to these forums, forms that have often condemned Israel for “occupation” and “annexation,” while when it comes to Russia, a different logic applies. As such, human rights, women’s rights, and even global health are heavily politicized. That is also why Taiwan faces an uphill battle in many forums – because of China’s influence there.
China, Russia and Iran have spent the last two decades showing their influences in Africa as the role of Western countries appeared to be in a decline. The same illusion applies to the Middle East.
South Africa's place among democracies
When there is a vacuum, authoritarians rush in. In the case of South Africa, this symbolism becomes more problematic. It is currently a democracy ,and its transition to becoming a democracy in the 1990s came at an important time, amid the end of the Cold War and a worldwide trend of democratization.
However, the legacy of Moscow’s backing of anti-colonial movements in Southern Africa looms larger than the importance of democracies working together.
India also has a similar historical reason for hedging on Russia. It was part of the non-aligned movement and watched as the US and other Western countries backed and arm Pakistan, which was a military dictatorship at the time. So, India has reasons to be hedged. Nevertheless, it is moving closer to the West and is concerned as well about China’s rise. The fact China may have used balloons to spy on India will increase tensions as well.
The diplomatic uphill struggle to get countries like South Africa to join with other democracies in standing with Ukraine is clear; the naval diplomacy that China, Russia and Iran are doing is clear. They continue to have influence in the global south and it will be difficult for the Wets to redeem the negative perceptions of it being instilled.
This is either because they see the West as unreliable, or because of a legacy of colonialism and the aftermath of the Cold War. This is an issue for Israel as well because it is close to the West and has sometimes faced hostility in some of the forums in the global south, even though Israel itself has many reasons to be close with these countries.