On November 30, the commander of Iran’s navy announced that it would be conducting joint war games with Russia and China at the end of December near the Strait of Hormuz.
The official objective of these games, rumored since October, is to train for anti-terror and anti-piracy operations. Russian and Chinese statements on the exercises have been matter-of-fact about the joint operation, while Iran’s naval commander imbued them with sending “a message to the world.”
This proposal of uniting three of the United States’ main rivals in arguably the most strategic waterway in the world is certain to raise eyebrows in Washington. Russia has been fairly active in the Middle East, but China traditionally avoids involvement in the region because it views it as a political tar pit. What are U.S. policymakers to make of China’s participation in joint war games in the Gulf of Oman?
China is on the rise and has increasing interests in the Middle East that it wants to protect. This next strategic step under the banner of anti-piracy neatly accomplishes several objectives in China’s strategy for the Middle East.
At the top of China’s agenda is military modernization, particularly its navy (the People’s Liberation Army Navy, or PLAN). Faced with new strategic challenges after the end of the Cold War, developing a strong navy took on paramount importance. China launched its first aircraft carrier in addition to three amphibious transports, 25 destroyers, 42 frigates, and approximately 60 submarines, some with nuclear capabilities, all manned by 133,000 personnel.
China’s boldest step toward naval expansion is its base off the coast of Djibouti, its first overseas installation. It oversees the strategic Bab al-Mandeb Strait and the Gulf of Aden and is only a short skip away from the Strait of Hormuz. The base officially serves as logistics support for PLAN counter-piracy escort missions, a rationale that officials tout in public and Chinese Middle Eastern specialists espouse in conversations with researchers.
China has legitimate concerns about piracy. The rise in piracy off the Horn of Africa has alarmed countries around the world and gotten cinematic treatment in both the United States with Captain Phillips and China with Wolf Warrior 2. China is the top exporter of containerized cargo, shipping three times as much cargo as the United States, the next largest exporter. With piracy affecting 90 percent of the world’s sea lines, the potential cost to China is astronomical.
China has been involved in escort operations with the multilateral Shared Awareness and Deconfliction missions that patrol east African waters since 2009, although it was initially reluctant. The base in Djibouti is a natural extension of these missions. The presence of a base in Djibouti is not inherently unusual — the U.S., France, Italy, Japan, and the E.U. all have bases.
American officials are skeptical that counter-piracy is the only purpose of the naval base, however. In 2018, the U.S. accused China of directing lasers at American aircraft in Djibouti. There are also legitimate concerns about China drawing Djibouti into debt entrapment.
There are other less belligerent speculations about the base. It could be a contingency plan in case China needs to evacuate its citizens working in the volatile Middle East, as it did in Libya and Yemen. The number of Chinese workers in the Middle East is only expected to grow with China’s Belt and Road Initiative. Chinese analysts predict that China will send its anti-piracy fleet to the war games, which operate from the base in Djibouti, another boon from the installation.
The war games with Iran give China the chance to practice missions in line with its anti-piracy interests but also show off its military prowess where it has strategic interests, namely energy. China is the world’s largest net importer of petroleum and receives about 50 percent of its oil from Middle Eastern countries. For a country with the second largest oil consumption in the world, Middle East energy is a national security priority.
There’s also a commercial piece to this military puzzle. When word of the tripartite exercises surfaced in October, there was Chinese optimism that it could acquire more arms customers. China has no hope of replacing the United States as the main weapons dealer in the region anytime soon, but Middle Eastern states see arms purchases from China as a bargaining chip when haggling with the U.S. In 1987 when the U.S. wouldn’t sell Saudi Arabia long-range fuel-tanks for F-15 fighter jets, Saudi Arabia brokered a deal with China for 50 to 60 nuclear-payload-capable CSS-2 intermediate range ballistic missiles.
China is one of the main arms suppliers to Iran, which has been slapped with an arms embargo. The two have made solid partners in the Middle East, each with a civilizational heritage and the shared experience of being isolated in the international community. Most importantly, Iran is a fellow autocratic power where China has leverage it can wield. China makes up a quarter of Iran’s trade, while Iran accounts for a mere one percent of China’s trade.
China’s participation in the war games is similarly in line with their usual power dynamic. It elevates Iran’s power projection in the region at a time when Iran is experiencing unprecedented domestic turmoil and animosity from its neighbors. China has been vague about the war games while Iran proclaims their importance. War games aren’t necessary for China’s survival, but arguably are for Iran.
Anti-piracy is a non-controversial pretext for China and Iran to collaborate on, as both nations are affected by it. China can pursue its anti-piracy goals, protect its commercial interests, inspire arms sales, and continue its asymmetric relationship with Iran.
This is not a direct confrontation of the U.S. military presence in the Middle East. China knows that it would lose such an encounter, and it benefits from the U.S.’ role as security guarantor. It is, however, a marker for China’s creeping presence in the Middle East, a factor with which U.S. policymakers will have to reckon as events like Iran’s war games increase along with China’s interests.
Lucille Greer is a Schwarzman Fellow at the Wilson Center’s Kissinger Institute on China and the United States.