The Future of Iran-China Cooperation in the Persian GulfMohammad Mahdi Mazaheri
As the world's second largest economy, China has 18,000 kilometers of coastline. Naturally, such a country seeks maritime security and seeks to develop its navy and modernize its equipment and bases in the surrounding and international waters. This goal of turning China into a naval power has become one of the main and serious goals of the ruling party, especially since Chinese President Xi Jinping took power in 2013.
As a result, Ping, who commands all forces in his country, is trying to turn China into a great power at sea, and of course he has set a roadmap for this. Unlike previous governments, which were more concerned with achieving economic goals for China, Ping did not refrain from developing any weapons after coming to power, so we now see Beijing having the second largest military budget in the world after Washington.
This situation has led the US Department of Defense to state, based on its latest assessments its 2020 report, that China currently has the largest navy in the world. Of course, the United States has fewer warships than China, but it has an advantage over other competitors in other areas, including technology, more advanced naval equipment, and aircraft carriers.
Developments in the South China Sea in recent years can be a good example, where China is trying to expand its maritime territory.
Eastern Superpower and Naval Forces
Another point is that China has fewer naval bases outside its national territory than the United States; While the US Navy has a vast presence in Europe, Africa, West and East Asia, the base in Djibouti is China's first foreign military base.
Therefore, it should be said that although this Eastern superpower has not yet been able to completely surpass the United States in the field of naval power and become an irreplaceable power in the seas, but in recent years, there have been policies and movements by this country that show its intention to become a dominant naval power and, of course, to develop its political and international influence in the near future.
Developments in the South China Sea in recent years can be a good example, where China is trying to expand its maritime territory by building artificial islands and claiming ownership of some islands in the sea, which has caused some disputes with neighboring countries such as the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and the like.
China has gained significant experience in escorting and securing maritime commercial traffic over the past decade.
China Improving Its Maritime
The Chinese People's Liberation Army Navy has also become more active in the Indian Ocean and West Asia in recent years, and the establishment of a naval base in Djibouti is one of the country's efforts to expand its influence in the Horn of Africa.
In addition to having a large navy, China has gained significant experience in escorting and securing maritime commercial traffic over the past decade, and since 2008 it has deployed more than 30 fleets to protect ships against Somali pirates. Although many analysts suggest that China may be considering Pakistan or Myanmar as the next destinations for its naval bases, in a more urgent move, it is considering options for escorting merchant ships in the Persian Gulf.
One of these options is China’s possible participation in US-led coalition missions, which it believes could be a low-cost way to expand foreign naval operations and establish initial entry routes to an area that has been under the influence and security control of the United States since the 1970s. About 43 percent of China's total crude oil imports pass through the Persian Gulf, making it a necessity for China to keep these vital offshore lines open.
Of course, China's recent commercial, political, and geopolitical disputes with the United States, especially the confrontation between the two countries' policies in South Chinese waters, have made China reluctant to participate in US-led Gulf security operations.
Therefore, if tensions in the Persian Gulf continue and intensify while the Sino-US relations are stable, the country will choose to join the US coalition, but if the level of tension between the two superpowers continue to rise as in recent months, China will probably lean towards its other option that is cooperation with other key players in the Persian Gulf, including Iran.
Iran, China Renew Partnership
In recent years, Iran and China have become close partners in West Asia. Perhaps one of the first steps in this direction was a joint Iran-Russia-China trilateral naval exercise that was held in the North Indian Ocean in January 2017, beginning with Russian and Chinese vessels docking in the port of Shahid Beheshti in Chabahar (North Indian Ocean and the Sea of Oman).
China sent one of its newest and most advanced destroyers to the region to participate in the exercise; the destroyer joined the North China Navy in 2017 and features a variety of radar and electronic systems such as the Dragon Eye radar.
Attending this exercise, with such facilities and equipment, shows the importance that the Chinese authorities consider for the Persian Gulf region and, of course, for cooperation with Iran. This is an opportunity that the Islamic Republic of Iran must realize well and thus prevent China from leaning towards the United States and joining the American coalition in the Persian Gulf.
* This article was originally published in Persian at Iranian Diplomacy.
** Mohammad Mahdi Mazaheri is the head of ECO Cultural Institute.