A few months ago, the Russian Ambassador in Tehran announced that China, Russia and Iran would hold joint maritime exercises in the Persian Gulf either by end of 2021 or in the beginning of 2022. Pretty sure you are thinking – SO WHAT? Afterall military exercises including joint maritime exercises are definitely nothing new. In fact, they are generally welcomed if it brings security across the seas. Yet, when the above was announced, the stated objectives may have been mildly amusing to most followers of such exercises around the world.
According to Levan Dzhagaryan, the Russian Ambassador, the drills are aimed at ensuring safe navigation, international shipping safety and combating pirates. When those indulging in illegal actions across the maritime spectrum are part of the above-stated objectives of a maritime drill, amusing it certainly is!!
China’s Maritime Safety Law & farce of ‘safe navigation’‘anti-piracy’
This news also comes at a time when China announced foreign vessels to report when in her ‘territorial waters’…and as always, their “territorial waters” covered almost the entire South China Sea. According to the Communist Party-run Global Times, the new regulations came into effect on September 01, 2021. The Maritime Safety Administration of China issued a notice to “operators of submersibles, nuclear vessels, ships carrying radioactive materials and ships carrying bulk oil, chemicals, liquefied gas and other toxic and harmful substances to report their detailed information upon their visits to Chinese territorial waters”. The categorisation covered almost every type of vessel other than warships and passenger liners. What is even more perplexing is that for the purpose of its latest regulations, China continues to claim water bodies within an ambiguous nine-dash line as territorial waters – a concept that has no legal standing in the International Maritime Laws.
The latest announcement when read in isolation may not strike immediately as dangerous. However, coupled with a law enacted in January this year which permitted ChineseCoast Guard to fire on foreign vessels in the disputed South China Sea, the latest announcement, has made transit across the South China Sea ‘dangerous for navigation’.
Now, back to the Russia-Iran-China joint maritime exercise. While China and her motives are already raising eyebrows, Iran for its part too is under the lens for its alleged actions in explosions onboard transiting merchant vessels in the Persian Gulf over the past few yearsincluding one onboard an Israeli owned vessel. To participate with these very forces in an exercise to ensure safe navigation in the Indian Ocean Region is definitely anembarrassment for Russia.
As for anti-piracy operations in the Persian Gulf, the premise is just that – a premise. Piracy has largely been restricted to the Gulf of Aden and now intensifying across the East Atlantic Ocean, especially the Gulf of Guinea. The IOR navies, principally the Indian Navy, have contributed handsomely over the years to reduce piracy to almost nil. The Navies in the Persian Gulf, especially those of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, UAE and even Iran to an extent have kept piracy out of the discourse with their constabulary actions.
Russian Navy has largely been seen as a benign maritime force in the IOR. Its periodic anti-piracy operations and bilateral exercises with various littorals have seldom raised eyebrows. Most navies in IOR that have been abiding by international maritime laws look forward to regional bilateral/multilateral exercises with navies from the USA, UK, India, Australia, France, Japan – not only because those navies are law-abiding, but also because they bring about a sense of security. Russia, therefore, has largely been welcome in the IOR – whether it is the Indra series of exercises with India or bilateral exercises with other countries. Yet, when any country exercises with China, there have always been suspicions. China, after all, has worked towards and cultivated the image of an aggressor, a violator of international maritime laws, an usurper of others resources – all of which are difficult to undo.
Chinese maritime misadventures
In the past decade, China has been the largest decimator of ocean resources and is feared by all maritime nations – small or big. For a country that aspires to be at the apex in every conceivable parameter, it certainly has succeeded in becoming the number one in Illegal, Unregulated Unreported Fishing (IUUF). Accounting for 35% of global demand, China today is the largest consumer of fish. With a nearly $405 billion annual industry that caters to 20% of the protein intake of the world, fishing is an extremely lucrative industry. After depleting stock in its waters, President Xi Jinping’s directives to – “Build bigger ships and venture even farther into the oceans and catch bigger fish” – has made China the lead encroacher on every possible EEZ where the coastal state is unable to repulse IUUF on account of ill-equipped navy or coast guard. Be it the Island nations in the Pacific, the countries abutting the Atlantic Ocean, Africa, the South and the East China Sea or for that matter the IOR – China has been the lead violator of all regulations. Even large countries such as Australia haven’t been spared.
Indeed, most coastal nations across the globe today are been at the receiving end of the Chinese Fishing Flotilla, its militia and illegal underwater surveys. China’s grey-zone misadventures keeps every less capable coastal state’s polity awake. It is, therefore, rich for China to conduct joint exercises with the stated aims of keeping the oceans safe. Infact, what could be one of the biggest ironies, just a day before the Russian Ambassador announced the trilateral exercises, Pakistan – the self-proclaimed ‘Iron-Brother’ of China witnessed hundreds of its citizens in Gwadar protesting against Illegal fishing by the Chinese trawlers – usurping traditional fishing waters of Pakistani fishermen.
While the trilateral exercises may proceed as planned, it would do little to boost the confidence of other maritime nations. Compare this with other maritime exercises in the IOR such as those participated by India or France or the USA or Australia or such other law-abiding maritime powers. They bring a general sense of safety across the oceans and reassurance to smaller coastal states that there is room for all, security for all and growth for all. No number of claims and façade of exercises by China towards achieving safety and peace across the oceans can compensate for its actions or instil a sense of security. The perpetrator claiming to be protector has little acceptance in this world.