A Busy Time for Russian, Chinese Navies

January 21, 2022 Updated: January 24, 2022

News Analysis

The joint naval drills between China, Russia, and Iran come at a worrying time for the United States and its allies.

The “2022 Marine Security Belt” exercises took place in the northern Indian Ocean on Jan. 21, with the stated goal of increasing cooperation between the three countries. According to a spokesman for Iran’s armed forces, this venture is meant to “jointly support world peace, maritime security and create a maritime community with a common future.”

This is the third of such official joint naval exercises between the three since 2019. The Iranian official, Mostafa Tajoldin, said that the purpose of such maneuvers is to strengthen the security of international trade routes, fight piracy, and exchange experience. Some of the capabilities that were demonstrated include rescue operations for burning ships, responding to a ship hijacking, and anti-aircraft firing exercises.

These scheduled operations are part of a broader trend of increased security and economic relations between the three countries. On Jan. 19, recently elected Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi—a hard-line anti-Western figure—met with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow. The event was followed by exclamations of a deepening relationship between the two nations, and calls for even greater cooperation in the future.

At the same time, Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian visited China this month to discuss a recently signed 25-year agreement between the two countries. The “comprehensive strategic partnership” is aimed to further solidify the burgeoning economic and political partnership. China and Russia—nuclear-armed powers with more technologically advanced military capabilities than Iran—have seized upon Tehran’s growing discontent with aggressive Western policies.

The latter weaken the regional influence of the Middle Eastern country and have driven it to seek alternative avenues for increasing its economic and political clout. Beijing and Moscow have been more than happy to provide this outlet for the theocratic regime in Tehran.

The push for enhanced naval capabilities and increased coordination between China and Russia isn’t new, but does seem to be escalating. In October 2021, Russia and China conducted their first joint naval patrol in the Pacific Ocean. “Maritime-Interaction-2021” included 10 Russian ships and five Chinese vessels traveling through the Sea of Japan. According to a statement by the Russian Ministry of Defense, the forces conducted anti-ship firing exercises and practiced joint-tactical maneuvers.

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A group of naval vessels from Russia and China conduct a joint maritime military patrol in the waters of the Pacific Ocean, in this still image taken from a video released on Oct. 23, 2021. (Russian Defence Ministry/Handout via Reuters)

These developments come at a worrying time in the current international environment. On Jan. 20, the United States challenged China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea with a freedom-of-navigation operation. The USS Benfold sailed around the Paracel Islands (known as the Xisha Islands in China) in the northwestern part of the body of water. Beijing says that it rightfully holds sovereignty over the region and has built military garrisons to cement its claim. The United States doesn’t accept any single country’s sovereignty over the area and regularly conducts these types of navigation exercises to challenge the Chinese regime.

As reported by Russian state media outlet RT, a spokesman for the Southern Theater Command of the People’s Liberation Army stated that the U.S. ship “illegally entered” the area before being “warned off.” Col. Tian Junli went on to say that U.S. actions “seriously threatened China’s sovereignty and security and that such type of behavior will lead Washington to “bear the serious consequences of unforeseen events.”

U.S. officials have reaffirmed their commitment to uphold the dictates of international law by performing such operations.

Naval concerns aren’t limited to the bodies of water surrounding the Asian continent alone. A reported flotilla of Russian amphibious ships recently left the Baltic Sea on its way through the English Channel. Military analysts expect the final destination of these ships to be the Black Sea, in order to bolster the naval capabilities Moscow currently has in the region.

This coincides with the recent move of Russian troops into Western neighbor Belarus for major war games; additionally, Moscow has amassed a sizable force on its border with Ukraine. The movement of a flotilla into the Black Sea could ostensibly ensure that the Kremlin surrounds Ukraine on three sides. Many Western observers recall similar moves before Moscow’s 2014 move to annex Crimea and the subsequent separatist movement in Kyiv’s west. Despite Russia’s repeated denial of such a move, many fear that Putin may be preparing for a repeat of 2014 in an attempt to seize further Ukrainian territory in the country’s east.

Should the situation escalate in any of these areas, it isn’t likely that Russia or China would come to the military aid of the other—at least not overtly. It’s hard to imagine Russia risking large-scale war with the United States over China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea; similarly, Beijing is unlikely to deploy naval forces to the Black Sea should war break out in eastern Ukraine.

Still, the escalation in naval coordination demonstrates an increased ability for regimes deemed “authoritarian” by the West to effectively coordinate activities and build relationships independent of U.S. global hegemony. This effectively allows them to increase pressure on the international order as it stands—as in Russia’s threat to European energy security and China’s economic pressure on countries over their relations with Taiwan.

The salutary outreach of Russia and China to other ostracized nations, such as Iran, aren’t only advantageous for each respective nation, but also help bring the multipolar world envisaged by Moscow and Beijing one step closer to reality.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.

Dominick Sansone is a PhD student at the Hillsdale College Van Andel Graduate School of Statesmanship. He is a regular contributor to The Epoch Times, and has additionally been published at The American Conservative, The Federalist, and the Washington Examiner.