On December 27, 2019, China, Russia and Iran began joint naval drills in the Indian Ocean and Gulf of Oman. This is an unprecedented military cooperation among the three powers, which are all regarded by the United States as either rivals or enemies. The military exercise are interpreted variously, yet, given that the Gulf of Oman is a highly sensitive waterway as it connects to the Strait of Hormuz, through which about a fifth of the world’s oil passes, the drill serves to maintain stability and security of the region along with a message that Iran is not isolated in foreign affairs. Last year, the United States absurdly pulled itself out of the Iranian nuclear deal. Since then, waters around Iran have become the focus of regional tension as the United States has imposed sanctions against Iranian crude oil sales with other trade ties to be cut off.
Yet, as the strongest ally of Iran, Russia has sent three warships from its Baltic Fleet – a frigate, a tanker and a rescue tug boat – to take part in the drills, which were the first time being held in such a format. Now as Russia’s most valuable strategic partner, China also decided to join the game, as it sent a guided-missile destroyer to the naval drill. True, joint military exercise is a routine exchange with any other country since it is in line with related international laws and practices. But the naval drill of China, Russia and Iran is sure to go beyond the normal military cooperation. Although China claims that joint drill has no connection with regional situation, it affirms the will and capability of the three powers to jointly safeguard the peace and maritime security of the region and beyond.
As the two largest Eurasian powers, China and Russia’s participation in the joint naval drills surely signify the emergence of a so-called “counter-coalition” to confront the one that the U.S. envisages creating. Some alarmist reaction in the West have already tried to portray this joint naval drill and their potential military cooperation as a threat to the peace and the balance of power in the region. In effect, the U.S. and its allies regularly hold joint military exercises all across the world at any given time of the year, which thus makes such events commonplace. Yet, Washington has largely fallen flat to create the peace and stability according to the resolution first approved by the United Nations Security Council (UNSC). Most other countries, except Israel, have expressed their concerns or even worries that their participation in the U.S.-led sanctions against Iran will only heighten tensions in this geo-strategic but extremely vital region from which a sizable share of the world’s oil originates. No responsible member of the international community wants to risk interfering with the free flow of oil, particularly those which depend on resource sales to finance the vast majority of their state budget. In addition, China and Russia’s military ties with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates’ (UAE) are not secret any more, with China opening up a drone factory in Saudi Arabia, Moscow making an arms deal with Riyadh following King Salman’s trip to Russia in 2017, and both China and Russia having participated in prestigious arms expos in the UAE. Due to this fact, it is ridiculous to portray triple drills as being aimed against any third party when they’re really just an exercise of what could be described as a part of normal diplomacy, or put it simply, pursuing diplomatic ends through military means.
Strategically, China and Russia are eager to demonstrate their pragmatic approach to the region en bloc. For example, Beijing and Moscow are not taking sides in the Persian Gulf dispute, simultaneously selling weapons to the local Kingdoms while also holding joint drills with Iran. This pragmatic policy could even be taken to a higher level whenever China and Russia can encourage all parties to resolve their disputes through political means instead of military ones. Yet, for Moscow and Beijing, the potential stakes are both geopolitical and economic because of the presumed division of labor between the two Eurasian powers under which Russia takes responsibility for security in the region while China concentrates on economic development.
It is noted that China and Russia both want to project their high-level strategic partnership to a broader range. First of all, the triple naval drills which is code-named “Marine Security Belt” is aimed at enforcing regional order and balance. To this end, the whole drills are being practiced: curbing terrorism threats, carrying out rescue operations and defense against attacks from pirates. The goal is to learn as much as possible, especially when it comes to safeguarding the security of international trade in the strategic regions and share experience in maritime rescue operations. As a result, China, Russia and Iran have a responsibility to secure the strategic regions together. Secondly, the joint naval drills enforce regional order and balance consistent with the United Nations’ 1982 Convention. As per this convention and as signatories, China, Russia and Iran reject the unilateralist idea that the U.S. is the region’s dominant naval power. Freedom of Navigation also says ships flying the flag of these sovereign states shall not suffer interference from the U.S. navy at will. Accordingly, under the 1982 Convention and Freedom of Navigation, Iran can hold naval drills with China and Russia for training cross military coordination, readiness, and information gathering. As Russian media argues that the drills likewise adhere to International Maritime Law by helping Russia, Iran and China to reinforce collective security. There is nothing wrong with the three powers regarding the joint drills as essential to their own security, particularly if it uses naval forces to curb terrorism threats.
In summary, China, Russia and Iran can have their own reservations for the drills as well. Tehran seeks to resist Washington’s maximum pressure approach. The naval exercise serves to argue that the U.S. has failed to isolate Tehran diplomatically and militarily. Russia says regional security has to be provided by regional states. The joint drills are in line with the concept of Russia’s collective security efforts. Further still, China relies on regional suppliers for its energy needs. The economic superpower has no plan to be vulnerable to any volatility in the region. Echoing the United States attempting to curb China’s development in a long run, Beijing necessarily takes action to rebut the U.S. Cold War mentality and hegemonic logic which were written into the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). In reality, the United States has failed to apply a triple containment policy toward China, Russia and Iran. It couldn’t hinder the presence and influence of their naval forces throughout the region. In contrast, the joint naval exercises bring a counterbalance against the U.S. with a message that in the year of 2020 and beyond, the three powers would be able to engage in similar joint military exercises if necessary.