2014-10-20 by Richard Weitz
From September 20 to September 24, the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) conducted its first port visit to Iran and its first entry into the territorial waters of Iran and the Persian Gulf.
Two vessels belonging to the PLAN East Sea Fleet, the Changchun and the Changzhou, docked at Bandar Abbas, the capital of Iran’s Hormozgān Province located in southern Iran.
The Iranian navy has its main base in the city’s port, which is strategically located on the Strait of Hormuz, which ships traverse when entering or leaving the Persian Gulf. The province’s Governor General, Jassem Jadari, described the encounter as “indicative of solidarity between the two nations and armies.”
Commissioned in early 2013, the Changchun, a Type 052C Luyang II guided-missile destroyer, is one of China’s newest ships. It is equipped with an active phased array radar and medium-to-long-range ship-to-air missiles. The Changchun is 155 meters long and 17 meters wide, with a displacement of 5,700 tons. The Changzhou is a Type 054A Jiangkai II guided-missile frigate.
Both ships have been serving in the PLAN’s 17th Escort Task Force as part of China’s rotating counter piracy mission in the Gulf of Aden.
The Iranian media broke the story and Iranian sources have provided most details regarding the exercise, which Iran termed “Velayat 3.”
Admiral Amir Hossein Azad, commander of Iran’s First Naval Zone, and Iran’s Navy Commander Rear Admiral Habibollah Sayyari said that the sailors exchanged intelligence and technical information, practiced fighting pirates, simulated search and rescue drills, and rehearsed coordinating tactical operations and avoiding and managing maritime disasters.
Iran’s Fars News said that the drills occurred in both Iran’s territorial waters and in the international waters of the Gulf off Iran’s coast.
The Iranian media also reported that the two PLAN warships had 650 sailors on board, who engaged in cultural and sports activities with their Iranian counterparts. The ships’ officers met with their Iranian naval counterparts but also provincial officials.
Azad said that Iran’s ambassador and military attaché in Beijing organized the port visit and exercise.
After a meeting with the Chinese commanders, he announced that the two navies would conduct larger drills in the future.
Following media inquiries, the China’s Ministry of National Defense confirmed the port visit and that the ships would practice exchanging data and “joint operational capabilities” with Iranian warships.
The Chinese Navy website later posted comments by Rear Adm. Huang Xinjian, commander of the 17th Escort Task Force and deputy chief of staff of the PLA’s East Sea Fleet, who said that the PLAN visit to Iran was intended to “deepen mutual understanding, and to enhance exchanges between our two countries’ navies.”
According to the Iranian press, the PRC Ambassador to Iran Pang Sen said that “this visit by the fleet of China is part of our joint efforts to strengthen the good relationship of cooperation between our two countries.”
The Chinese ships stayed 4-5 days and then conducted a similar port visit and naval drills with Pakistan, a long-standing Chinese ally and the main purchaser of Chinese naval vessels.
A Chinese company runs major facilities in Pakistan’s Indian Ocean port of Gwadar, which could provide the PLAN with a key naval base near the entrance to the Strait of Hormuz and the Persian Gulf.
In announcing their arrival, one Chinese journalist broke with the general PRC line of downplaying the military dimension of the Iran visit and stated that the Chinese and Iranian ships had “carried out drills on anti-access and aerial denial strategies against the United States.”
Even disregarding this sole source, the visit was a natural evolution for both navies. The Chinese Navy, though still primarily focused on defending the seas around China, has been venturing on longer patrols in recent years.
In addition to sustaining a de facto permanent presence in the Gulf of Aden since late 2008, where several Chinese ships have been fighting pirates alongside warships from dozens of other countries, the PLAN has been conducting many more foreign port visits and exchanges.
Meanwhile, the Iranian Navy has also deployed ships to fight pirates in the Gulf of Aden since 2008. The Iranian media cited several cases when Iranian warships helped rescue Chinese commercial vessels under attack by pirates, who attack ships of any nationality.
Iran has been striving to develop security ties with foreign countries, especially great powers like China, to break out of its regional isolation.
With both fleets expanding their range of operations, Chinese and Iranian ships naturally encounter each other more frequently, so they would understandably want to develop procedures to govern these encounters and to improve their interoperability.
Yet, the direct Chinese-Iran military partnership has been growing.
For decades, China’s main defense-related activity with Iran consisted of selling weapons to Iran but also its potential Middle eastern adversaries like Saudi Arabia. But in 2010 Chinese warplanes refueled in Iran on their way to participate in exercises in Turkey (also an unprecedented Chinese military engagement in Europe with a NATO member). This stopover marked the first visit to Iran by a foreign air force since that country’s 1979 Islamic revolution.
Then, in early March 2013, an Iranian flotilla that included the Sabalan destroyer and the Kharg helicopter carrier became the first Iranian warships to visit China. They docked in China’s port city of Zhangjiagang following a 13,000 kilometers, 40-day voyage. In May of this year, Iranian Defense Minister Hossein Dehghan visited China to discuss military cooperation.
Although the Chinese Ministry of Defense downplayed the importance of the exercise as a routine “friendly visit” and counterpiracy drill, Tang Zhichao, a research fellow with the Institute of West Asian and African Studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, cited China’s growing “security interests in the Middle East and strategic maritime passages such as the Persian Gulf.”
Looking ahead, one reason for the Chinese deployment may be to prepare the PLAN to conduct more extensive missions in the Middle East and South Asia in coming years. China’s vital energy supplies traverse these waters and many Chinese nationals have been working in the Middle East.
China has been seeking naval access facilities in the region as part of a strategy that has been described as building a “string of pearls.”
In 2011, the PLA Navy had to evacuate thousands of Chinese expatriate workers and their families caught in the Libyan Revolution. Now the rise of ISIL is presented a new threat to the Chinese nationals working in Iraq and Syria.
For now, China has no choice but to rely on the U.S. Navy, whose main naval base in Bahrain is not far from the site of the PLAN port visit in Ira, to keep these waterways open for Persian Gulf oil exports.
But Chinese strategists may be looking decades ahead to a time when the PLAN may need to replace or compete with the U.S. Navy.
On the one hand, the Chinese are naturally uncomfortable about the ability of the U.S. Navy to intercept their oil imports from the Persian Gulf. China has been building land-based pipelines and other transportation links to Iran to minimize this vulnerability.
On the other hand, Chinese commentators have been increasingly questioning the U.S. will and ability to main global security, pointing to how many countries have defied U.S. red lines while Iraq and Afghanistan remain in turmoil despite a decade of U.S. military occupation.
Tang Zhichao, a research fellow with the Institute of West Asian and African Studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, explained that, “as the West’s capability and will to maintain regional security weakens, Gulf regions are looking to other world powers such as China to step in.”
But while the West might welcome a greater security role for China in Afghanistan or Iraq, the Persian Gulf is a more complex region where Western governments would view a major Chinese military presence less favorably.
Editor’s Note: Here is how an Azerbaijani source looked at the exercise:
While heading a high-ranking military delegation, the commander of Iran’s Navy Rear Admiral Habibollah Sayyari arrived in China Oct. 19 for an official visit at the invitation of his Chinese counterpart.
Seeking grounds for boosting mutual cooperation between the two sides’ armed forces, as well as naval cooperation will be touched during the visit, Sayyari said, Iran’s official IRNA news agency reported.
The commander said that providing Iran’s navy with some technical requirements by Chinese side will be also discussed during the visit.
An Iranian delegation is expected to visit China’s naval training centers, Sayyari added.
Earlier in May Iran’s defense minister, Hossein Dehghan visited China and discussed military cooperation issues with Chinese officials.
The two sides stressed expansion of mutual military and security cooperation between the two countries.
During a meeting with his Chinese counterpart Chang Wanquan Dehghan underlined that the two countries can expand their military cooperation to eliminate “common concerns on extremism, terrorism, drug trafficking and piracy.”
China is believed to have helped Iran in various military fields including training of high-level officials on advanced systems, providing technical support, supplying steel for missile construction, providing control technology for missile development, building a missile factory and a test range.