Iranian-Chinese-Russian naval exercise muddies troubled Gulf waters

The exercise will be closely watched by Israel, particularly if the exercise includes practice in ASW because the Arabian Gulf is an area where Israel keeps one of its five Dolphin-class submarines.
Sunday 15/12/2019
US Navy members stand guard on aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln as it transits the Strait of Hormuz, November 19. (US Navy via AP)
US Navy members stand guard on aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln as it transits the Strait of Hormuz, November 19. (US Navy via AP)

Iranian Navy Commander Rear Admiral Hossein Hunzadi announced that Iran’s naval forces would conduct military exercises with naval units from China and Russia in the Indian Ocean near the entrance to the Arabian Gulf.

This represents a significant regional maritime development, as both Russia and China can deploy naval forces, second only to the United States’, and particularly because the United States usually has a carrier task force in the region. Furthermore, the US Navy 5th Fleet is based in Bahrain.

The Chinese and Russian deployments for the Maritime Safety Belt exercise will require substantial logistical support, given the long voyages from both countries.

In the past, both China and Russia contributed modest naval forces to anti-piracy patrols off Somalia but, if there is to be a more significant presence at the exercises, the nearest bases beyond this they might utilise their ships from would be Djibouti for China and Syria for Russia, otherwise the ships would deploy from their home ports.

Interestingly, the pretext for the joint exercises, as stated by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in October, is “the fight against terrorists and pirates in the Indian Ocean,” even though the problem has largely been eliminated because of US-led Task Force 151 and Operation Atalanta multinational maritime naval forces, which remain fully operational and still provide many regional security measures.

The Russian Navy consists of five fleets: the Baltic, the Northern, the Black Sea and the Pacific, along with the Caspian flotilla. Surface vessels from the fleets could be diverted to the exercise. In November, a Baltic Fleet detachment transited from the Mediterranean into the Red Sea via the Suez Canal to the Gulf of Aden for training involving anti-piracy operations.

Several Northern Fleet ships left Severomorsk port December 3 en route to the Atlantic while, in the southern Atlantic near the Cape of Good Hope, the Russian Navy’s Marshal Ustinov missile cruiser recently completed an exercise with the Chinese Navy’s Weifang frigate and the South Africa’s Amatola frigate.

In October, a detachment of Pacific Fleet ships, including the Pacific Fleet flagship Variag missile cruiser and the large anti-submarine warfare (ASW) ship Admiral Panteleev, left Vladivostok for the Asia-Pacific region. Any of those detachments could participate in the exercises near the Arabian Peninsula.

The deployment represents a significant show of allied naval support for Iran, whose surface fleet is far more modest. China’s maritime interest is clear, given that it buys a significant amount of Iran’s oil, which it ships home by sea, particularly as it has become the world’s largest oil importer.

Beyond energy concerns, another element is uniting the trio’s economic concerns; Iran and Russia are subject to punishing US sanctions while the Chinese economy has been burdened with onerous US import tariffs. The naval exercises accordingly show solidarity with Iran in resisting Western economic hegemony.

While the US Navy has assets it can surge relatively quickly to the area, including the 5th Fleet in Bahrain and, further afield, the 6th Fleet in the eastern Mediterranean in Naples, Washington’s efforts the past several months to form a naval coalition to strengthen its presence in the Arabian Gulf and the Indian Ocean to counter Iran have been unable to attract major European support, drawing interest only from Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Australia and Israel.

The Trump administration’s attempts to assemble a naval coalition to secure Arabian Gulf merchant shipping after last summer’s oil tanker attacks represent a significant decrease of regional American power projection.

For centuries, countries have deployed their naval forces “flying the flag” as a unique projection of benign military threat. In the troubled Middle East, the Russia-Iran-China naval triad represents a new element challenging the long-standing Western maritime hegemony there.

Foreign observers will be particularly interested in what the three navies are undertaking beyond their professed anti-piracy exercises. The exercise will be closely watched by Israel, particularly if the exercise includes practice in ASW because the Arabian Gulf is an area where Israel keeps one of its five Dolphin-class submarines, suspected of being armed with nuclear-capable cruise missiles on patrol as a deterrent against Iran.

The exercises are occurring at a time when Iran is experiencing “maximum pressure” from the United States.

While only the foolhardy would protect the future in the Middle East, the more pressure the Trump administration puts on Russia, Iran and China, the higher the likelihood of rapprochement between the three governments and the higher the possibility in the future of them showing further solidarity.

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