Iran, Russia and China are scheduled to hold their first joint naval exercise in the Northern Indian Ocean on 27 December. Last week, Iran’s naval chief Rear Admiral Hossein Khanzadi informed the media that the drills, named ‘the marine security belt’, would involve the participation of high-end naval platforms, including destroyers and submarines. For regional maritime watchers, this is a significant event. Last month, Russia, China and South Africa participated in a naval exercise (Ex-Mosi) in Cape waters. Three Russian warships including the Slava class cruiser Marshal Ustinov, and the PLAN Type 054A frigate Weifang (33rd Task Group) participated in drills alongside South African naval warships in an event that seemed to be a virtual showcase of Russia’s growing strategic interests and naval reach in the Indian Ocean.
By all accounts, the latest initiative by Iran is a response to the move by the United States to form a naval coalition in the Persian Gulf. Officially launched last month in the waters off Bahrain, the coalition of Western naval powers purports to protect shipping in the Gulf waters from Iranian attacks. Regional analysts say there has been a hardening in the international posture towards Iran in recent months after allegations that Iran seized a British-flagged tanker in the Strait of Hormuz. Indeed, Italy, Denmark, the Netherlands and France have even backed a UK proposal for a European naval force.
As many see it, Iran’s proposal for a joint exercise with Russia and China is to counter US and European initiatives to apply pressure on Iran in the Northern Indian Ocean. The US accuses Tehran of disrupting the flow of international oil by attacking tankers and Saudi oil facilities, leading senior Iranian officials to warn Washington that any attempt to form an international coalition in the Gulf will invite an Iranian response. Expectedly, Tehran has invited the navies of the two countries the United States sees as prime competitors in its national defence strategy. Iran is also said to have invited the Pakistani Navy to join in the exercises, a confirmation of a warming of military ties between Iran and Pakistan. Needless to say, many in New Delhi are worried over the prospect of Russia’s involvement in a naval exercise with both Pakistan and China in a sensitive Indian Ocean littoral region.
That China and Russia have independently strengthened their maritime cooperation adds to regional concerns. Since 2012, the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) and the Russian Navy have been coming together for Joint Sea exercises every year. This year, the drills lasted over six days, and witnessed the participation of guided missile destroyers, missile frigates, and submarines. Many of these exercises have notably also featured Chinese marines and amphibious exercises. This has led to some speculation that China, with some help from Russia, is working on an expeditionary template of operations, practicing ground assault drills in the Indo-Pacific’s sensitive littoral nations. The fact that the PLAN has conducted a series of island defence exercises in the Western and Far-Eastern Pacific means there is more to its expeditionary forces than just a display.
Oddly enough, news of a trilateral naval exercise featuring the Russian, Chinese and Iranian navies comes at a time when India and Russia are aiming to strengthen their bilateral military ties. Since December 11, the two sides have been carrying out ex-Indra-2019, a bilateral military exercise in the Indian states of Uttar Pradesh and Goa, featuring air, ground, and sea elements.
From an Indian perspective then, recent developments offer a bittersweet taste of regional geopolitics. Russia’s engagement in the Indian Ocean has indeed grown but not quite in the way India’s maritime watchers had imagined.