By Andrew Hammond
March 29, 2021
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi is in the middle of a key six-country Middle East tour, but the eyes of the world are as much on the deepening geopolitical alliance between Beijing and Moscow, which warmed further last week.
On Monday and Tuesday, the ever-energetic Wang met Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. Ties between Moscow and Beijing have become significantly closer under the leadership of Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping, with a burgeoning economic and political dialogue.
In recent years, this axis has appeared also to be on the brink of welcoming Tehran. As Iran has been squeezed by Western sanctions, it has launched a charm offensive toward Moscow and Beijing, one of the manifestations of which came in December 2019 when the three nations for the first time conducted naval drills in the north Indian Ocean and Sea of Oman.
However, it is the alliance between Russia and China that the West is most worried about. Beijing and Moscow are working together much more closely, not just to further bilateral interests, but also hedge against the prospects of a continuing chill in US and wider Western ties.
The Wang-Lavrov meeting came immediately after new sanctions against Beijing by Brussels, London, Washington and Ottawa because of human rights abuses in Xinjiang. Meanwhile, Russia remains under an array of Western sanctions too, including those imposed by the EU last month in the wake of the mistreatment of Alexei Navalny.
In the face of this growing Western pressure, Lavrov and Wang last week requested a summit of 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 agenda. This is founded, in part, on the strong personal relationship between Putin and Xi with the Chinese leader recently saying that bilateral relations were 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. An example is the semi-regular China-Russia war games, which in 2018 took place in the Trans-Baikal region in Russia’s far east, and involved about 300,000 troops.
This military dimension has enabled stronger, common positions on regional and global issues too. This includes North Korea with which both nations have land borders and long-standing alliances, and Iran, withBeijing and Moscow pushing hard during the Trump presidency for the continuation of the 2015 nuclear deal.
The support Russia and China have given Iran has warmed ties, which manifested in December 2019 when they conducted their naval drills. While those operations were viewed primarily through a military lens, they have significance for the global economy too.
The troubled waters of the Strait of Hormuz are the only sea passage from the Arabian Gulf to the open ocean for a fifth of the world’s oil, a quarter of liquefied natural gas, and half a trillion dollars of trade. With the global economy continuing to be lubricated by oil, despite a growing shift toward cleaner energies, there have been attacks on ships. To be sure, tankers guided by satellite can be redirected to replace vessels in distress, but the oil industry nonetheless remains worried by the threat hanging over the busy Middle Eastern shipping lane and the valuable commodity cargo that travels through it.
At the time of attacks in 2019, the Trump team blamed Tehran squarely for the growing disorder in these regional waters. More than half a dozen states participated in a US-led naval force that included Saudi Arabia, Australia and the UK. However, most European governments declined to participate, fearful of critically undermining the 2015 nuclear accord with Tehran.
The growing ties between Iran, China and Russia are shaping Wang’s tour of the region where his itinerary includes not just Iran, but also Saudi Arabia, Turkey, the UAE, Bahrain, and Oman. On Saturday, Tehran and Beijing finalized a 25-year strategic partnership agreement first announced during a visit by Xi to Tehran in 2016.
This underlines that ties between the three countries could grow warmer still, especially if relations between them and the West deteriorate further during Biden’s presidency. While the dialogue is deepest between Moscow and Russia, Tehran may increasingly be brought into the fold, which would have key implications not just for the Middle East but broader international relations into the 2020s.