This year marks the 100th anniversary of the founding of the CPC and 23th anniversary of establishing diplomatic ties between China and South Africa.
We are happy to see that the Chinese-South African comprehensive strategic partnership has enjoyed profound development and that the pragmatic co-operation between the militaries has grown steadily.
In particular, classic naval diplomacy has become the hallmark witness of our friendly relations. China-Africa maritime exchanges have experienced a long history, which can be dated back to the 15th century. During the Ming Dynasty Admiral Zheng was the first Chinese explorer, diplomat and trader to reach the shores of East Africa.
The second visit by the PLA (People's Liberation Army) Navy was in August 2000 when the Chinese Missile Destroyers Shenzhen and the Replenishment ship Nancang visited Simon’s Town.
In October 2008 SAS Spioenkop, the third of the South African Navy’s Valour Class frigates, became the first warship from the African continent to visit China, ending 600 years of one-way visits. The visit was planned to be part of the year-long celebrations to mark the 10th anniversary of China-South African diplomatic relations.
The geographical distance between Pretoria and Beijing is 11 654km and this was shrunk significantly in a way which only naval diplomacy can do. The Chief of Staff of the Shanghai Naval Base of the East China Sea Fleet, Wu Weihua headed a delegation of military and local officials, and diplomats, to welcome the ship.
“You’ve travelled a long distance to bring the friendly greetings of the South African people. We really appreciate it,” the chief of staff said.
At a media briefing on the flight deck before a dozen TV crews, the South African ambassador to China, His Excellency Ndumiso Ntshinga, said that South Africa realised that there was a gap in bilateral naval visits and it was necessary to reciprocate.
For me, it was an honour to visit China as a representative of South Africa’s Navy. I believed the visit will consolidate friendship between the two countries, the armed forces and the people.
The chinadaily.com.cn best summed up the occasion with the following perspectives:
“... a naval officer managing the open day said about 3 000 people visited the ship on Sunday, much more than the usual number which visits foreign warships …
“... ’I think the modern infra-red stealth design is the key attraction’, he said. ’Besides, it’s attraction as the first African warship to visit China also drew the public … ’
"... But what impressed naval soldier Li Yi the most was the South African crew’s culture. The two navies played a football match on Saturday. While the Chinese players waited quietly, the South African team entered the field singing and dancing. It’s so different, the tropical culture, its festive style attracts us very much…”
“... from Dineo Maleka, a communications clerk from the ship; ’I appreciate the Chinese Government’s considerate arrangements. It is lovely to see the modern part of Shanghai and at the same time feel its history …’
“... Captain Christopher Manig, captain of the SAS Spionkop, surveyed the Chinese frigate which had escorted him into Shanghai. ’I was impressed that the ship was built in China and that most of the system equipment on board was also made in China. The Chinese people must be proud of it. The Spionkop was built in Germany, but fitted out in South Africa,’ he said. “
In April 2011 two PLA Navy frigates from the 7th Escorting Flotilla visited Durban after their anti-piracy deployment off the Gulf of Aden en route from Libya.
Authorised by the UN, the PLA Navy has been conducting these anti-piracy activities since 2008. The Seventh Escort Task Force comprising the Guided Missile Frigates FFG Zhoushan and Xuzhou had safely escorted 578 merchant vessels from all nations through the pirate-infested waters.
FFG Xuzhou had just been dispatched to escort the Greek Passenger Liner Venizelons, which required aid in evacuating 2 142 Chinese Nationals from violence in the region.
In June 2014 three PLA Navy ships from the 16th Escort Task Group arrived in Cape Town on the last leg of a visit to eight African Countries. This Task Group comprised of the Missile Frigate FFG-546 Yancheng, FFG-527 Luoyang and the replenishment ship AOE-889 Taihu.
In May 2016, the 22nd PLA Naval Escort Task Force visited Cape Town and the South African naval base of Simon’s Town. It comprised of the Taihu, the DDG Qingdao, and FFG Daqing.
During the visit the Chinese conducted exchanges with the South African Navy including an open day for the public to visit the ships. After the port call, the Chinese ships conducted exercises with the South African Navy.
In November 2019, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN), South African Navy, and the Russian Navy conducted a trilateral maritime exercise in the South Atlantic Ocean off Cape Town. This exercise strongly promoted the pragmatic co-operation and the capability of combined operation, and fully demonstrated the resolve of responding to the maritime challenges and maintaining the world peace and maritime security, highlighting the unprecedented role of navies.
South Africa and China enjoy good relations politically, economically, culturally and in the security dimension.
Numerous naval leaders have suggested that the South African-Chinese relations, underpinned by naval diplomacy, could become the model of friendly Sino-African relations. This would continue to include high-level visits, regular port calls by naval ships as well as personnel exchanges amongst Defence Colleges, anti-piracy co-operation and combined exercises and drills.
Naval diplomacy has allowed these relations to be strengthened in a manner which only navies can do.
* Rear Admiral Robert Higgs is a retired Commander of the Fleet of the South African Navy.
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of IOL and Independent Media.