Russia, China, and Iran are conducting a maritime exercise in the Gulf of Oman, and it is attracting world headlines. Many commentators frame it as a bold answer to the United States and the coalition that is engaged in a maritime security operation in the Strait of Hormuz. But it is easy to exaggerate the scale and significance of this joint exercise.
First, Russia and China essentially sent one warship each. China participates with the Luyang III-class destroyer Xining, and Russia has joined with the frigate Yaroslav Mudry from the Baltic Fleet. In many places it is reported that Russia has sent three ships, but the other two are the tanker Yelna and the tugboat Viktor Konetskiy.1 The three Russian ships departed from Baltiysk on October 1st, and they have since participated (at least symbolically) in the counter-piracy mission in the Gulf of Aden, and they took part in the Indra 2019 exercise with the Indian Navy earlier in December.
So this exercise with Iran is quite small, and it is largely symbolic. It does not display a significant ability of Russia to act as a naval power in the Middle East. China has more such power, but it seems unlikely that they would use it for anything that could damage the free flow of trade through the Strait of Hormuz. China’s economy would suffer from interruptions to the merchant traffic, so it is far from obvious that they could find common grounds with Iran if things were to escalate. So while the exercise does display unity and opposition to America, there is little reason to believe that it will materialize into more than a symbolic gesture.
But the Iranian-Russian-Chinese exercise does demonstrate one thing: the power of naval diplomacy. Russia and China have successfully established an impression of themselves as great powers with a stake in an unfolding conflict, and Iran has managed to display to the World that they still have powerful friends. That is quite an accomplishment, given that Russia and China basically just sent one warship each for a four-day exercise.
- It is ironic that Russia feels the need to accompany any warship with a tug whenever it goes on a long journey. It really does not send a signal of self-confidence. ↩