Chinese Minister of Foreign Affairs Wang Yi (王毅) is in the middle of a key six-country Middle East tour, yet the eyes of much of the world are as much on the deepening geopolitical alliance between Beijing and Moscow, which warmed further this month.
On Monday and Tuesday last week, the ever-energetic foreign chief met with Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergei Lavrov.
Ties between Moscow and Beijing have become significantly deeper under the leadership of Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平), with a burgeoning bilateral economic and political dialogue.
The axis appears to be on the brink of a trilateral dialogue including Tehran after Beijing on Saturday last week signed a 25-year Sino-Iranian Comprehensive Strategic Partnership.
As Iran has been squeezed by Western sanctions, it has launched a charm offensive toward Moscow and Beijing, and one of the manifestations of this was the three nations in December 2019 conducting for the first time naval drills in the north Indian Ocean and the Sea of Oman.
Yet, it is the alliance between Russia and China that is the one the West is most worried about. Beijing and Moscow are working together much more closely not just to further bilateral interests, but also to hedge against the prospects of a continuing chill in US and wider Western ties.
The Wang-Lavrov meeting came immediately after the imposition of new sanctions against Beijing from Brussels, London, Washington and Ottawa because of human rights abuses in Xinjiang, while Russia is also under sanctions.
In the face of this growing Western pressure, Lavrov and Wang last week sought a summit of the permanent members of the UN Security Council. They say this is necessary to establish direct dialogue about ways to “resolve humankind’s common problems in the interests of maintaining global stability.”
Beyond the chill between the two powers and the West, there is a burgeoning Chinese-Russia bilateral agenda. This is founded, in part, on the strong personal relationship between Putin and Xi, with the Chinese leader recently saying that the bilateral relationship is at “the highest level, most profound and strategically most significant relationship between major countries in the world” and also praised Putin as “my best, most intimate friend.”
One manifestation of these deepening ties is an emerging China-Russia security axis. Take the example of the China-Russia semi-regular joint war games, including in 2018 in the Trans-Baikal region in Russia’s Far East involving about 300,000 troops.
This military dimension to the bilateral cooperation agenda has helped enable stronger, common positions on key regional and global issues. This includes North Korea — with which both nations have land borders and are long-standing allies of Pyongyang — and also Iran, over which Beijing and Moscow pushed hard during the administration of then-US president Donald Trump for a continuation of the 2015 nuclear deal.
The support that Russia and China have given Iran has warmed trilateral ties, which was manifested in December 2019 when the three nations conducted naval drills.
While those operations were viewed primarily through a military lens, they have potential significance for the global economy.
The troubled waters of the Strait of Hormuz — through which passes one-fifth of the world’s oil, one-quarter of the liquefied natural gas and US$500 billion of trade — provide the only sea passage from the Persian Gulf to the open ocean.
With the global economy continuing to be lubricated by oil, despite a growing shift toward cleaner energy sources, there have been attacks on ships, including in 2019. To be sure, tankers guided by satellite can be redirected to replace ships in distress, but the oil industry nonetheless remains worried by the threat hanging over the busy Middle East shipping lane and the valuable commodity cargo that travels through it.
At the time of those 2019 attacks, the Trump team blamed Tehran for the growing disorder in the regional waters. More than half-a-dozen states participated in a US-led naval force, including Australia, Saudi Arabia and the UK.
However, most European governments declined to participate, fearful of critically undermining the nuclear accord with Tehran.
The ties between Iran, China and Russia are shaping Wang’s tour of the region.
The partnership signed last week is a clear signal of intent that will bring Tehran into Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative.
This underlines that ties among the three countries could yet grow warmer still, especially if relations between them and the West deteriorate further during the administration of US President Joe Biden.
While the dialogue is deepest between Moscow and Russia, Tehran might increasingly be brought into the fold, which would have key implications not just for the Middle East, but for broader international relations into the 2020s.
Andrew Hammond is an associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics and Political Science.
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