Even as the US and its allies try to devise coordinated policies to prevent Russia from invading Ukraine, Moscow, Beijing, and Tehran are warning Washington that it ignores East Asia and the Middle East at its peril. Furthermore, they are doing so in close coordination, reminding the Biden administration that, no matter how hard it tries, it cannot compartmentalize crises.
Russian President Vladimir Putin held a video call with his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, in mid-December. According to Xi, the two agreed that “China and Russia should increase their joint efforts to more effectively safeguard both parties’ security interests.” Indeed, Putin’s senior national security adviser, Yuri Ushakov, a former ambassador to the US, told reporters that Xi had expressed support for Putin’s anti-Western stance. The two leaders will meet in person in China on February 4, the first day of the Winter Olympics.
Putin also met with Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi last week. Although the visit was not particularly substantive, it did signal a growing friendship between the two countries. Raisi handed over a draft of an updated 20-year cooperation agreement between Iran and Russia to Putin. This agreement, if successful, would come after the completion of Iran’s 25-year “cooperation program” with China in March 2021. Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian visited China two weeks ago to discuss the agreement’s implementation; already, at the end of December, Tehran agreed to Beijing opening a consulate general in Bandar Abbas, its strategic port.
This week, Russia, Iran, and China held their third joint naval exercise, dubbed CHIRU, following the first in December 2019. They carried out the three-day exercise in the Gulf of Oman, just outside the Strait of Hormuz, a critical chokepoint for oil transit from the Persian Gulf to the Indian Ocean. Russia participated in the exercise with three ships: the missile cruiser Varyag, an anti-submarine warfare ship, and a tanker. China dispatched the guided-missile destroyer Urumqi, named after the capital of Xinjiang, which is home to the majority of the country’s Uyghur population, as well as a supply ship, ship-borne helicopters, and 40 members of the People’s Liberation Army Navy’s Marine Corps. Iran sent 11 ships as well as smaller vessels commanded by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, Tehran’s usual means of harassing Western navies and commercial shipping.
The timing of the exercise, at least for Russia, could not have been better. The exercise was described by Moscow’s defense ministry as “joint tactical maneuvering and practiced artillery fire at a naval target, as well as search-and-rescue missions at sea.” What the Russians referred to as “tactical maneuvering,” Tehran referred to as “night fighting.” The Iranians also said the exercise included fire-fighting drills, which would be critical in any exchange of fire with a Western navy.
The Chinese air force again breached Taiwan’s Air Defense Identification Zone around the same time the three countries were conducting their exercise. The message, like the exercise, was clear: Washington needed to be aware of the ability of each of its adversaries to exploit its preoccupation with any of them. Indeed, in a conversation with Secretary of State Antony Blinken earlier this week, Foreign Minister Wang Yi addressed Ukraine and Taiwan, stating that, with regard to Ukraine, “regional security could not be guaranteed by strengthening or even expanding military blocs,” and that the US should “stop playing with fire on the Taiwan issue, and stop creating various anti-China cliques.”
Furthermore, as it prepares its defense budget for fiscal year 2023, the Biden administration should consider that it can no longer assume that it can address multiple threats concurrently, reducing the pressure to increase defense spending. Rather, it should recognize that deterring the anti-American triad necessitates increased budgetary and material resources to respond to crises in multiple theaters, which these states are bound to generate in concert.
Alternatively, if it does not make sufficient resources available to deter Russia, China, and Iran, the Biden administration should accept that, over time, it will effectively cede to them its influence not only in the Middle East, but possibly also in Europe.