South Africa is set to launch a joint naval exercise with Russia and China today.
However, the move described as routine has fuelled domestic criticism and fears that the drills will endanger important relations with Western partners.
World powers are vying for influence in Africa amid deepening global tensions resulting from the war in Ukraine and an increasingly aggressive Chinese posture towards self-ruled Taiwan.
Some African nations are steadfastly refusing to take sides as they seek to benefit from the diplomatic tug-of-war.
Analysts, however, said hosting the 10-day Mosi II exercise, which coincides with the first anniversary of Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine on February 24, was a risky strategy.
“These exercises are going to be a lightning rod,” said Steven Gruzd of the South African Institute of International Affairs.
South Africa said it maintained a neutral stance on the Ukraine conflict and abstained from voting on a U.N. resolution last year condemning Russia.
Pointing to similar exercises it’s held with other international partners, including one with France in November, it has rejected criticism.
South Africa’s defence Ministry in January said “South Africa, like any independent and sovereign state, has a right to conduct its foreign relations in line with its national interests.”
However, six South Africa-based diplomats, all from NATO or EU countries told Reuters they condemned the exercise.
“It’s not right, and we told them that we do not approve,” one said.