The imploding geopolitical core of West Asia frequently spews out explosive new threats and unstable strategic alliances that often fizzle out in time. Many grandiose initiatives, such as the innumerable Israeli-Palestinian peace plans, the now comatose 41-nation Islamic military alliance, the US-Iran nuclear deal (JCPOA), Trump’s vaunted ‘Deal of the Century’ etc., are typical examples of proverbial sandcastles built in the air.
Nevertheless, it seems to be China’s turn now to propose solutions for West Asian issues like the so-called ‘security architecture’, which it put forth as part of its Global Security Initiative (GSI) enunciated in a concept paper in February 2023. Although not taken seriously by the international community at that time, the formulations of this strategic design have started physically manifesting in recent months.
On 10 March 2023, China managed to bring regional arch-rivals Saudi Arabia and Iran closer, as they re-stablished their diplomatic relations after a period of seven years. Following this development came the news of Syria’s return to the Arab League in early May, with its President Bashar Al Assad personally attending the League’s Riyadh summit on 19 May 2023. Almost simultaneously, Saudi Arabia and Syria decided to reinstate relations, facilitated by the more assertive Russia-China axis in the region.
Iran- Arab Gulf States Joint Naval Force
For a long time, the US had complained about China’s “free riding” on the public goods provided by the former’s security umbrella over West Asia,2 until suddenly China seems to have stepped on the accelerator and arguably at the expense of US interests. Thus on 3 June 2023, Iranian navy commander Shahram Irani reportedly claimed that Iran and Saudi Arabia, along with six other countries — namely the UAE, Bahrain, Qatar, Iraq, Pakistan and India — planned to form a joint naval force.
“The countries of the region have today realized that only cooperation with each other brings security to the area,” Irani stated. In an implicit criticism of the US, he added that the “unjustified” presence of foreign forces in the region will “soon” come to an end, and regional countries themselves will soon protect the area. In an almost supercilious tone, the Iranian official claimed: “Almost all countries in the northern part of the Indian Ocean have drawn the conclusion to stand by the Islamic Republic of Iran and cooperate to establish security”.
It is noteworthy that in spite of Iran’s bold claim, none of the countries reportedly named by it as part of a prospective Iran-Arab Gulf “naval force” confirmed or cared to issue any statement on the matter. For its part, US’ 5th Fleet and Combined Maritime Forces spokesperson Cmdr. Tim Hawkins doubted the viability of the proposition and stated “It defies reason that Iran, the number one cause of regional instability, claims it wants to form a naval security alliance to protect the very waters it threatens.”
On the face of it, it does seem untenable that GCC navies, who strongly disagree with Iran on the very name of the Persian Gulf (and call it Arabian Gulf) and who allege Iran to have illegally occupied three UAE islands, could ever navigate contentious waters alongside Iranian vessels. It also seems incredible for Iran to suggest that India would in any way become part of a naval alliance, alongside Pakistan.
China’s ‘Malacca Dilemma’
However, there is no denying that relations between the US vis-à-vis Saudi Arabia and the UAE have suffered in recent times, particularly after American decision to drawdown its forces from the region in order to pivot to the Indo-Pacific.
In fact, Iran’s announcement regarding the prospective naval coalition came just days after the UAE Foreign Ministry declared on 31 May 2023 that it had already withdrawn from the 34-nation US-led Combined Maritime Forces, which currently operates in Gulf waters and the Red Sea. The phraseology of the UAE Foreign Ministry statement on its website was itself curiously cryptic: “As a result of our ongoing evaluation of effective security cooperation with all partners, the UAE withdrew its participation in the Combined Maritime Forces two months ago.”
Meanwhile, Russia, China and Iran conducted a naval exercise in the Gulf of Oman in mid-March, under the name ‘Maritime Security Belt 2023’. The naval drills were widely viewed by Gulf States as a show of strength by the emerging axis of Russia, China and Iran against the declining Western commitment to the region. In fact, Chinese participation in this naval exercise was reported to be its largest ever in the Gulf and so it is believed that the UAE’s decision to quit the US-led maritime coalition might have been influenced by the potential alternative presented by China and Iran.
Although Gulf States have so far not commented upon Iran’s announcement of a Perso-Arab Gulf naval alliance, China reacted immediately to the news and supported Iran’s purported initiative. On 5 June 2023, China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin responded to news in a press meet by saying that Beijing “supports regional countries (in the Persian Gulf) in seeking development through solidarity and keeping their future firmly in their own hands,” and added, “China will continue to play a positive and constructive role in promoting regional peace and stability.” Meanwhile, Qatari news portal Al-Jadid claims that China has already started mediating negotiations among Tehran, Riyadh, and Abu Dhabi to reinforce navigational safety in the Persian Gulf.
In stark contrast to the West, China’s economic development is heavily dependent on a steady, uninterrupted and relatively affordable flow of energy resources, with over 50 percent of its crude imports coming from West Asia already. As geopolitical tensions in the Indo-Pacific rise, the country is bedevilled by the so-called ‘Malacca Dilemma’ – which refers to the narrow Malacca Strait, through which much of China’s vital energy imports flow and could be easily blocked by an adversary in times of war. Therefore, China is looking for greater cooperation to build alternate land routes through Iran and Central Asia for its oil supplies from Gulf and to this end is now investing its political and strategic capital into the region.
China’s GSI in West Asia: “Collective Security Architecture”
Thus, in his address to the China-Gulf Cooperation Council summit in December 2022, Chinese President Xi Jinping invited Gulf States to join his country’s Global Security Initiative (GSI) “in a joint effort to uphold regional peace and stability”. Xi added that “China will continue to firmly support GCC countries in safeguarding their security, and support the efforts by regional countries to resolve differences through dialogue and consultation and to build a Gulf collective security architecture”. In fact, West Asia figures prominently in the GSI concept paper in that it calls for establishing a “new security framework”
Moreover, China promises to use the GSI to support the efforts of regional countries to “strengthen dialogue and improve their relations, accommodate the reasonable security concerns of all parties, strengthen the internal forces of safeguarding regional security, and support the League of Arab States (Arab League) and other regional organizations in playing a constructive role in this regard.”
Countries in West Asia, particularly the Arab Gulf states, have over the years welcomed China’s so-called policy of “positive balance” in the region, described as “not choosing sides, nor making enemies”. Its security mediation in Iraq, Sudan, Yemen and even Israeli-Palestinian conflict has so far avoided criticism. Although China’s signing of a 25-year agreement with Iran in March 2021 as part of their Comprehensive Strategic Partnership sparked much controversy in the West, China has managed to balance the move in West Asia by signing similar strategic partnerships with 12 Arab WANA (West Asia, North Africa) states, with whom it boasts of having cordial ties with contending parties in the conflict-torn region.
Iran’s Hypersonic Missile and the Threat of War
However, China’s policy has its pitfalls and it may also be that the country may have already overplayed its hand in West Asia. For now, West Asian states are frustrated with the US for “abandoning” the war-torn region in favour of its pivot to Asia. But China’s overt support to Shiite Iran, which is an ideological rival of the US, Israel and more importantly most Sunni states in the region, could soon undermine the country’s supposedly “non-partisan image”.
Iran’s growing influence in West Asia has been a cause of concern for both the West and Israel for many years. “Iran is everywhere,” Amir Avivi, a brigadier general in the Israel Defense Forces’ (IDF) reserve, recently told Newsweek. “And it’s not new, but what is new is that the possibility of war is getting bigger and bigger. There’s more chance of a large-scale war than ever before, that is, in the last 20 or 30 years.”
Iran’s growing militaristic prowess, such as its recent unveiling of the hypersonic ballistic missile Fattah, has exacerbated other nations coming in its range. Iran claims that Fattah is capable of moving at a speed of at least Mach 5, or five times the speed of sound and has a range of 1,400 kilometres that would put Israel, US bases and most Arab states in the Gulf region within reach. In fact, Iran claims that this hypersonic projectile has the ability to “penetrate all air defense missile systems and detonate them,” and a giant billboard in Tehran brazenly reads in Persian, Arabic and Hebrew languages, “400 seconds to Tel Aviv”.
Thus, China might have unleashed the very threat of war in West Asia, which it might wish to avoid to secure its long-term energy needs. By promoting its own security architecture for West Asia, it is acting as a new hegemon and may have entered the Thucydides Trap by provoking the existing superpower US, which has still not entirely abandoned the region.
Dr. Adil Rasheed is Research Fellow at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi
Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Manohar Parrikar IDSA or of the Government of India.
This article first appeared in the Comments section of the website (www.idsa.in) of Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defense Studies and Analyses, New Delhi on June 12, 2023