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By Antony Sguazzin and Prinesha Naidoo
A Chinese surveillance ship that can track rocket and spacecraft launches was docked at the eastern port of Durban this week, less than two months after South Africa drew the ire of Western nations by holding naval exercises with China and Russia.
The presence of the Yuan Wang 5, which is now heading west according to data compiled by Bloomberg, has previously raised concern among China’s geopolitical rivals. In August, India objected when Sri Lanka allowed the ship to dock at its Hambantota port.
The docking of the vessel may add to fears that South Africa is moving closer to China and Russia, even though the bulk of its total trade is with Western nations. South Africa’s biggest single trading partner is China, but its flows with Russia are negligible.
“We don’t think further than our noses about future consequences,” Kobus Marais, defense spokesman, for the main opposition Democratic Alliance, said in an interview. “It’s a concern. Why would she dock, and why is she around?”
On April 3, the DA criticized a decision to allow Iranian warships to dock in Cape Town.
“The African National Congress government is actively showing that it no longer acts in the best interest of the country,” the DA said in a statement, that warned the nation is risking Western sanctions citing a so-called note verbale that was sent by the US Embassy to South Africa to the country’s parliamentary International Relations Committee.
That note warned that entities and individuals that provided services to sanctioned vessels could be subject to the risk of sanctions from the US authorities.
South Africa’s presidency said it didn’t track the docking of ships on a day-to-day basis and referred queries to the defense department and state port operator. Neither responded immediately to queries, while the Department of International Relations and Cooperation referred queries to the Department of Transport, which didn’t immediately respond. Calls to the Chinese Embassy in South Africa weren’t answered.
South Africa has courted criticism from the US and its allies for refusing to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and holding the naval exercise with several Russian and Chinese vessels off its east coast in February over the first anniversary of the outbreak of the conflict. Pretoria is currently contemplating whether to allow Russian President Vladimir Putin to attend a BRICS bloc summit that it will host in August.
On March 15, South African Defence Minister, Thandi Modise, defended the government’s decision to sign a memorandum of understanding with Poly Technologies Inc, a Chinese military trade company. Partnerships with foreign companies would boost South Africa’s own defense industry, she told lawmakers.
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