China-Russia-Iran Joint Naval Exercise in the Gulf of Oman: What Is Its Impact?

In the dynamic landscape of global politics, the recent joint naval exercise in the Gulf of Oman in mid-March 2024 involving China, Russia, and Iran has sparked intense discussions and raised critical questions about the geopolitical implications of this strategic convergence. Dubbed the “Maritime Security Belt 2024,” this exercise not only showcased the military prowess of these nations but also signaled a potential shift in regional power dynamics and global alliances. The trilateral naval drills, however, come at a time of heightened tensions in the Middle East region. The protracted conflict between Israel and Hamas in Gaza has raged for six months, threatening to escalate into a wider regional conflagration. Meanwhile, the Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen have intensified their attacks on international shipping in the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden, posing a notable threat to maritime trade and prompting the formation of a U.S.-led naval coalition to protect commercial vessels.

Against this volatile backdrop, the joint exercise involving the naval forces of China, Russia, and Iran in the strategically vital Gulf of Oman has raised eyebrows and sparked concerns among Western powers. The convergence of these three nations, each with its own regional ambitions and global aspirations, has the potential to reshape the geopolitical landscape and challenge the existing world order. China, the rising economic and military powerhouse, has long sought to expand its influence in the Middle East and secure vital maritime trade routes that are critical to its continued economic growth.  Russia, embroiled in its ongoing conflict with Ukraine and facing isolation from the West, has increasingly turned its attention to the Middle East as a means of diversifying its alliances and asserting its global influence. Iran, on the other hand, has long been a contentious actor in the Middle East, with its nuclear program and support for proxy groups like Hamas and the Houthis drawing international scrutiny and sanctions. By aligning with global powers like China and Russia, Tehran aims to break out of its diplomatic isolation, mitigate the effects of sanctions, and assert its regional dominance.

According to Iranian Admiral Mostafa Tajaddini, the three countries’ drill, which is their fourth since 2019, was also intended to enhance trade, battle “piracy and terrorism,” promote humanitarian activities, and exchange knowledge in the field of rescue. However, as these three powers converge in the Gulf of Oman, a critical waterway for global maritime trade and energy supplies, the exercise takes on broader geopolitical significance. It raises questions about the strategic motivations of the participants, the potential impact on regional stability and maritime security, and the implications for the realignment of global alliances and power dynamics.

Strategic Alliance Dynamics

The joint naval exercise in the Gulf of Oman represents a noteworthy milestone in the evolving strategic partnership among China, Russia, and Iran. This trilateral collaboration, which has been described as a ‘game changer’ and ‘power projection in action’ by experts, underscores the convergence of interests and the potential for a deeper alignment among these powers. China’s participation in the exercise is a reflection of its long-term strategic vision to expand its influence in the Middle East and secure vital maritime trade routes. By aligning with Russia and Iran, Beijing can leverage its combined military capabilities and gain access to strategic locations, strengthening its position as a global superpower.

For Russia, the exercise serves as a platform to showcase its ability to project power beyond its immediate sphere of influence. Amid the ongoing tensions with the West over the Ukraine conflict, Moscow seeks to diversify its partnerships and solidify its foothold in the Middle East, a region of immense geostrategic importance. Iran, on the other hand, sees this collaboration as an opportunity to mitigate the effects of international sanctions and assert its regional dominance. By aligning with global powers like China and Russia, Tehran aims to counterbalance Western influence and potentially gain leverage in future negotiations regarding its nuclear program and other contentious issues.

Meir Javedanfar, an expert on Iranian security studies, emphasizes the significance of this alliance dynamics, stating, “The Chinese and the Russians are using this exercise as a variety of tools disposable to them to show their presence and to pressure the West.” This sentiment echoes the prevailing notion that the exercise serves as a strategic countermeasure against Western hegemony and a potential precursor to a more formalized alliance among the three nations.

Regional Power Play

The joint military drills in the Gulf of Oman are a clear manifestation of the ongoing regional power play, with implications that extend far beyond the immediate vicinity. The convergence of China, Russia, and Iran in this strategically vital waterway sends a powerful message to other regional players and the West.

Iran’s involvement in the exercise can be viewed as a symbolic assertion of its dominance in the Persian Gulf region. By showcasing its naval capabilities and forging ties with global powers like China and Russia, Tehran’s goals are to solidify its position as a regional hegemon and counter the influence of its rivals, particularly the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states. For China, the exercise represents an opportunity to expand its footprint in the Middle East, a region of immense economic and strategic importance. By strengthening ties with Iran and Russia, Beijing can potentially leverage its influence to secure energy resources, protect maritime trade routes, and counter the perceived containment efforts of the United States and its allies in the region.

Also, Russia’s involvement in the exercise is considered a strategic move to counter Western influence and assert its position as a major player in the Middle East. By aligning with Iran and China, Moscow can potentially gain access to key regional allies, logistics support, and strategic leverage in its ongoing geopolitical tussles with the West. Wendell Minnick, an arms specialist and podcaster, highlights the potential impact of Iran’s new warships showcased during the exercise, stating, “That’s a game changer. Pay close attention to anti-ship missiles on ships. The U.S. Navy has a real problem with these types of missiles.” This statement underscores the shifting military dynamics in the region and the potential challenges posed by the combined capabilities of China, Russia, and Iran.

Impact on Global Maritime Trade Routes

The Gulf of Oman and the adjacent Strait of Hormuz are critical chokepoints for global maritime trade, with an estimated 20% of globally traded oil passing through these waters. The presence of Chinese, Russian, and Iranian naval forces in this strategic waterway could potentially disrupt or threaten the free flow of maritime traffic, particularly in times of heightened tensions or conflicts between Iran and Israel. However, any disruption in this region could have severe repercussions for global energy markets, as well as the economies of nations heavily dependent on maritime trade. By contrast, Rear Admiral Mohammad Nozari, the IRGC commander of Iran’s base at Chabahar, stated that one of the exercise’s objectives was to “safeguard global peace and maritime security.”

However, analysts have expressed skepticism about this claim, suggesting that the exercise may be a veiled attempt to demonstrate the collective ability to disrupt maritime trade if deemed necessary. Furthermore, the potential deployment of advanced anti-ship missiles and other offensive capabilities displayed during the exercise has raised apprehensions among Western powers, particularly the United States, which has a significant naval presence in the region to guarantee the security of maritime trade routes. As tensions between the West and the China-Russia-Iran axis continue to simmer, the potential for maritime confrontations or disruptions in this critical waterway cannot be overlooked, potentially giving rise to hitches for global supply chains and economic stability.

What about West’s Response?

The joint naval exercise in the Gulf of Oman has not gone unnoticed by Western powers, particularly the United States and its allies in the region. The convergence of China, Russia, and Iran has been viewed with deep concern from the West, no doubt! Although there was no direct saying about the tri-nation military drills, NATO and the US were very much aware of what this meant to the West. NATO, however, had shown off its large-scale military exercises in the Nordic region just a few days before China, Russia, and Iran exercised Military drills. The “Nordic Response” exercises along with Norway, Sweden, and Finland, described as considerable NATO drills since the Cold War ended, involving the participation of the alliance’s newest members can be seen as a counterweight to the China-Russia-Iran axis.

Sophie Kobzantsev, a Russia analyst and research fellow at the Misgav Institute in Jerusalem, highlights the strategic messaging behind the exercise, stating, “Part of this concept of the new world order is to partially create a military balance vis-a-vis the West. The drill serves Russia—and Iran and China—in creating the image and the message to the West that there is a counter-strategic military coalition.”

Implications for Geopolitical Alliances and Coalitions

However, the joint naval exercise in the Gulf of Oman has far-reaching implications for the realignment of geopolitical alliances and coalitions on the global stage. It signals a potential shift in the balance of power and a challenge to the existing world order dominated by Western powers. The convergence of China, Russia, and Iran epitomizes a formidable alliance that could potentially reshape the global geopolitical landscape. While the three nations have different motivations and interests, their shared desire to counter Western influence and assert their respective regional and global ambitions has brought them together.

The likely formation of a Sino-Russo-Iranian alliance would not only challenge the existing global order but could also prompt a realignment of geopolitical coalitions. Western powers, such as the United States and its allies, may seek to strengthen existing alliances or forge new partnerships to counterbalance the emergent axis of China, Russia, and Iran. This dynamic could potentially lead to a new era of great power competition, characterized by heightened tensions, proxy conflicts, and a struggle for regional and global dominance. The implications of such a realignment would reverberate across various domains, including diplomacy, trade, security, and technology. It could result in increased militarization, arms races, and the potential for miscalculation or unintended escalation, posing significant risks to global stability and prosperity.

In conclusion, the joint naval exercise in the Gulf of Oman, dubbed the “Marine Security Belt 2024,” represents a significant geopolitical development with far-reaching implications. It not only showcases the growing military cooperation among China, Russia, and Iran but also highlights the shifting dynamics of power and influence on the global stage. While the stated objectives of the exercise revolve around maritime security, anti-piracy efforts, and economic cooperation, the underlying strategic motivations of the participating nations paint a more complex picture. As the world grapples with the implications of this strategic convergence, all stakeholders must exercise caution and diplomacy. Any miscalculation or escalation could have severe consequences for regional stability and global peace. Ultimately, the long-term impact of this joint naval exercise will be determined by the actions and reactions of the involved parties, as well as the broader geopolitical landscape in which they operate.

[Screenshot/ Russian Defence Ministry]

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

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