South Africa, on Thursday, announced the organisation of joint manoeuvres with the Russian and Chinese navies off its coast, between 17 and 27 February. “In order to strengthen the already flourishing relations between South Africa, Russia and China,” the joint manoeuvres will take place off Durban, the largest port in southern Africa, and Richards Bay some 180 km further north, the South African military confirmed in a statement. “This will be the second time that such an exercise is held in the presence of the three naval forces, the first having taken place in November 2019 in Cape Town,” recalls the army.

The naval drills are a show of diplomatic independence by South Africa, which is one of three dozen countries that abstained from voting at the United Nations last year to condemn Russia for its claim to have annexed several regions of Ukraine. These drills assert South Africa’s position that it will not allow the conflict between Russia and Ukraine to dictate its diplomatic relations.

South Africa is part of the BRICS, an alternative economic grouping that seeks to provide alternatives from the US-dominated economic order, along with Russia, China, India and Brazil (who have all refused to condemn Russia’s actions in eastern Europe). It also has a long history with both Russia and China. Many South Africans who led the efforts to overthrow the apartheid regime studied and received military training in the Soviet Union. At the same time, China also provided military training to members of the African National Congress, the liberation party that would eventually govern South Africa.

In the present circumstances, the United States has expectedly condemned the planned naval drills, but it may amount to very little as the US understands that in its battle to get more countries into its isolate-Russia brigade, it may end up alienating important allies who might shift eastwards as its Middle Eastern ally Saudi Arabia is doing. Thus, it is unlikely to affect military cooperation between South Africa and the West.

It is also questionable if the drills will be of any military value, especially to Russia: China has already made it very clear that it will not directly assist Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. South Africa certainly is not in a position to do so. If anything, sending military assets to southern Africa at this time is a distraction for Russia’s overstretched military.

For an African continent that remains divided on this issue, South Africa provides an important template in managing not only relations but also expectations on the Great Power rivalry in the East-West confrontation emerging in this century, and the lesson is clear for those who want to learn: by staying neutral, you can eat your cake and still have it.