China Curiously Says It May Join U.S. Persian Gulf Maritime Coalition Despite Trade War

The U.S. wants to “internationalize” its new regional mission, but escalating tensions with Beijing could dampen prospects for China’s involvement.

byJoseph Trevithick|
China photo


China has said that its navy could escort Chinese-flagged commercial vessels in the Persian Gulf, Gulf of Oman, and the Strait of Hormuz, in response to growing security concerns in the wake of Iran's seizure of multiple foreign oil tankers in recent the past month. In addition, Chinese officials are considering joining a new U.S.-backed maritime security framework in the region, despite serious tensions between the two countries at present, including a massive trade war. This news comes as the U.S. government has reportedly sought to take a more secondary role in that operation, offering the United Kingdom a leading role, in a push to "internationalize" the effort and attract foreign partners.

Chinese Ambassador to the United Arab Emirates Ni Jian informed Reuters of his country's positions on regional maritime security in Abu Dhabi on Aug. 6, 2019. China's embassy in the country subsequently provided additional details to the wire service via text message.

"If there happens to be a very unsafe situation we will consider having our navy escort our commercial vessels," Ni told Reuters. "We have the position that all disputes should be sorted by peaceful means and by political discussions, not ... military actions."

"We are studying the U.S. proposal on Gulf escort arrangements," the Chinese Embassy in the UAE added.

The US Navy's Arleigh Burke class destroyer USS Sterett, at left, sails with the Chinese Type 903 Fuchi class replenishment ship Chao Hu, the background, and the Type 054A Jiangkai II class frigate Yun Chang during a counter-piracy exercise in the Gulf of Aden in 2014., USN

On July 19, 2019, U.S. Central Command had announced the plan, dubbed Operation Sentinel, which would focus primarily on intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance, as well as improved information sharing between allies and partners to increase overall situational awareness in the region. Earlier that same day, Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) had seized control of the British-flagged tanker Stena Impero in the Strait of Hormuz, a tit-for-tat response to the United Kingdom's continued impoundment of the Iranian supertanker Grace 1. The British had detained Grace 1 off the coast of Gibraltar in the Mediterranean Sea on July 4, 2019, over sanctions violations.

Iran is now holding a total of three foreign ships in total. On July 14, 2019, the IRGC also detained the Panama-flagged Riah. On Aug. 4, 2019, the IRGC said it had seized another ship purportedly sailing under the Iraqi flag, but did not give its name. The Iraqi government has denied it has any connection to the vessel, but has said it is working to get more information on the situation.

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Iran says that Riah and this unknown vessel were involved in fuel smuggling. This is a lucrative illicit business in Iran due to heavy government subsidies on commodities such as gasoline and diesel, despite regular shortages of those fuels within the country.

Despite these incidents, the U.S.-backed effort failed for weeks to attract any real foreign interest. The United Kingdom and Germany had gone so far as to publicly announce their intention not to participate. Since at least June, U.S. military air and naval assets, including cluster munition-toting F-15E Strike Eagles, have been independently patrolling the Persian Gulf, Strait of Hormuz, and the Gulf of Oman and keeping watch for any potential threats to international shipping.

A pair of US Air Force F-15E Strike Eagles, at least one of which is carrying cluster munitions, conduct a Surface Combat Air Patrol in June., USAF

The United Kingdom's new government, led by Prime Minister Boris Johnson, now says it will join the U.S.-backed mission, abandoning earlier plans for a separate European-led operation. At the same time, however, U.K. officials say that they remain committed to the international deal over Iran's controversial nuclear program and diplomacy with Tehran. 

The United States withdrew from the Iran Deal in 2018 and has since pursued a hardline "maximum pressure" policy toward the country. At the same time, tensions between the United States and Iran have been escalating, in general, for months, and there have been concerns that the situation might spiral into open conflict. These fears were especially pronounced after the IRGC shot down a U.S. Navy drone over the Gulf of Oman in June, which did almost lead to U.S. military strikes on Iran.

"Nobody wants to be drawn into conflict with Iran," Secretary of Defense Mark Esper told reporters on Aug. 2, 2019. "That's why we first proposed the idea of a coalition of like-minded allies and partners, if you will, getting together in the Gulf and in the Strait, figuring how again we can escort shipping, so that the Iranians will not take provocative actions."

Mark Esper, now Secretary of Defense, speaks to members of the Senate Armed Services Committee during his confirmation hearing in July 2019., Stefani Reynolds/Picture-alliance/DPA/AP Images

So far, the United Kingdom has been the only party to formally announce plans to take part in the mission. The United States has also reportedly scrapped the Operation Sentinel name and agreed to give the U.K. armed forces a leading role in the effort, which may have helped sway Johnson's government, according to a story from Politico on Aug. 5, 2019, citing anonymous sources. 

That same "internationalizing" of the mission may be why China is now considering signing up, as well. China and the United States are otherwise locked in an increasingly brutal trade war. Just on Aug. 5, 2019, the U.S. government branded China as a currency manipulator. That same day, China announced it had stopped buying U.S. farm goods entirely, a major blow to American agricultural enterprises. Chinese and U.S. authorities have increasingly come to at least rhetorical blows over a host of other issues in the past few years, as well, including China's claims in the South China Sea and the status of Taiwan.

Whatever the exact operational structure the Chinese might choose, conducting patrols in and around the Strait of Hormuz would certainly provide valuable experience for the People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN), which is striving to move from a regional force to one with robust global reach. The PLAN has been conducting counter-piracy patrols in the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean for years now and it also now has a base in the East African country of Djibouti that could also help support operations in the Middle East.

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Even a U.S.-backed mission could be attractive to the Chinese, especially if the U.S. military's public role is diminished to some extent. China recently branded the United States as a destabilizing force globally in a new national defense policy white paper and involving itself in maritime security in the Middle East would offer an ideal opportunity to show that it can be a viable alternative to the U.S. government. The rapidly growing size of the PLAN means that China's contribution to any mission in the region could be very visible even as part of a larger multinational force.

"The coalition that we're building in the Arabian Gulf and specifically in the Strait of Hormuz is going to be a 80- or 90-percent coalition effort," U.S. Navy Vice Admiral Michael Gilday, who is set to be the next Chief of Naval Operations, explained to members of Congress during his confirmation hearing on July 31, 2019. "A much smaller U.S. effort is primarily focused on providing intelligence support to the rest of the coalition."

Still, the U.S. government has, so far, left many questions about how unified the command structure for coalition it is building will be, as well as details about the U.S. military's exact role within that framework, largely unanswered. China continues to trade and otherwise actively engage with Iran and Beijing could be very wary of putting itself into any position where it might find itself called upon to engage Iranian forces to defend another country's ships.

So, by the same token, China might look into the U.S.-backed mission and still ultimately decide to offer up its own competing framework entirely separate from any U.S. government influence. Whether or not the United States succeeds in getting additional allies and partners to agree to its plan first could be the deciding factor.

"They [CENTCOM] had a sourcing conference last week. I want to say we had 30-plus countries attend," Secretary of Defense Esper had told reporters on Aug. 2019. "And we have various degrees of commitment, so I think we'll have some announcements coming out soon in the coming days, where you'll see countries begin to sign up."

It will certainly be interesting to see how this U.S.-backed coalition evolves, what America's role looks like in the end, and whether or not China is among the countries that ultimately agree to participate.

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