APRIL, 2024

On 11 March, Iran, Russia, and China launched the fourth iteration of their four-day annual trilateral naval exercises. According to Iranian Second Rear Admiral Mustafa Taj al-Dini, the exercises “testif[y] to the emergence of a new alliance to ensure security in the northern Indian Ocean.” The reality, though, might not be quite so dramatic.

First held in 2019, these exercises have always taken place in the Arabian Sea, and been based out of the Iranian port of Chabahar. They occur in a highly strategic corridor in the northern Indian Ocean, which links the Arabian Peninsula to Chinese ports in the Pacific Ocean via the Strait of Malacca. What is most notable about these exercises are the geopolitical implications of strategic coordination between Iran, Russia, and China. Indeed, even as talk of a burgeoning Iran-Russia-China axis increases, these naval exercises remain the only regularly cited example of trilateral military coordination in action. As such, they have much to tell us about the nature of this trilateral relationship — its motivations, possibilities, and limitations.

Relations between all three states seem to be deepening. Chinese General Secretary Xi Jinping has made “strengthen[ed] strategic coordination” with Russia a priority, while in his post-“election” victory speech, Russian President Vladimir Putin declared that China’s and Russia’s “national interests coincide,” which “creates a favorable environment for resolving our common tasks and in the sphere of international relations.” In our recently published reports from the U.S. Army’s Foreign Military Studies Office, we found that both China and Russia employ instruments of national power for military influence in Iran at a high level, each scoring a four on a five-point scale. Furthermore, our research assesses that both Russian and Chinese military influence in Iran are likely to increase in the next three years. Alongside the stronger bilateral relations between the three countries, Iran recently joined the Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa (BRICS) group and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, arguably the two most prominent Russo-Chinese alternative multilateral institutions. In articulating their importance to Iran, Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi described membership in the BRICS as “countering unilateralism,” while the Shanghai Cooperation Organization was “a great family of civilizations” standing in opposition to Western “moral downfall.” The foundation for a trilateral security alliance, in short, seems to be in place.

This burgeoning engagement between Iran, Russia, and China is a cause for serious concern, as it places three of the most significant U.S. adversaries in a coalition that, at its core, seeks to disrupt and challenge the U.S.-led order. Commentators have thus raised the alarm about a new “axis of disorder,” “Axis of Evil 2.0,” “axis of autocracy,” “unholy alliance,” or even “Legion of Doom.” Yet increased bilateral engagement and multilateral cooperation do not necessarily result in a trilateral “axis.” How cohesive is such an Iran-Russia-China “axis,” and how concerned should the United States and its allies be?

While concerning to a degree, this axis is, currently, more rhetorical than real. Although there are clear reasons why the three countries might mutually benefit from the emergence of deep and consistent trilateral engagement — and have indeed collaborated in practice — important fissures in such a trilateral axis exist. The aforementioned naval exercises, for example, are not as important as typically portrayed. On a broader level, each of the three countries brings its own challenges to the would-be axis. As a result, the United States and its allies — while remaining wary — should recognize the tenuousness of this axis and avoid viewing all interactions between these three states as inherently deep, meaningful, and, thus, threatening. Instead, the real threat is more subtle: each of these three countries seeks to leverage its growing network of multilateral partnerships, often beyond this trilateral context, to its benefit and to the detriment of the United States.


The Trilateral Axis in Theory

On the surface, for China, Russia, and Iran, the potential benefits of collaboration in a formalized axis are intuitive. First, it would facilitate the shared goal of challenging and remaking the U.S.-led global order. Within this group, there is no shortage of rhetoric extolling this objective. Xi has called for China to “lead the reform of the global governance system” and has launched initiatives to rival the U.S.-led world order, such as the Belt and Road Initiative, Global Development Initiative, and Global Security Initiative. Russia, the mid-level partner, has a primary foreign policy focus, as articulated in the so-called Primakov doctrine, to create a multipolar world in which the United States is constrained by other major powers. Raisi appeals to his Chinese and Russian counterparts to join the “resistance” to “turn the threat [of the United States] into an opportunity for progress.”

Second, while America’s primary concern over the axis is its military implications, the creation of a formalized trilateral axis offers opportunities for robust economic partnerships amongst all three countries, at least two of which (Russia and Iran) are under punitive global sanctions. Since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022, there has been renewed interest in Moscow and Tehran for developing the International North-South Transport Corridor , a multi-mode route for moving freight between Russia, Central Asia, and India. Tangible steps toward greater economic integration have occurred: in February 2023, Moscow and Tehran announced that they had connected their national financial messaging services after their access to the Belgium-based Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication was suspended. The move insulates bilateral financial exchanges from Western sanctions and could be expanded to involve other countries in the future.

Third, the creation of a trilateral axis would help each of the countries shore up its security as they look to a conflict-ridden future, with China contemplating conflict with the United States over Taiwan, Russia considering a longer-term war in Europe, and Iran viewing itself as perennially under attack. While the naval exercises demonstrate the potential maritime security implications, the three have also collaborated in the space domain. For example, all three have made concerted efforts to eliminate their reliance on the United States’ GPS global navigation satellite system and instead reinforce each other’s. In 2021, Iran’s military was granted full access to China’s BeiDou satellite navigation system (the second country apart from Pakistan), while integration efforts between BeiDou and Russia’s indigenous satellite system, GLONASS, are under way.

The Limits of Naval Cooperation

While the ideological bases for a trilateral axis are theoretically in place, in practice, the most frequently invoked example of the axis’ existence is less than the sum of its parts. Specifically, the trilateral naval drills in the Arabian Sea — the sole public instance of trilateral military coordination — remain largely performative. Alone, they are unlikely to increase trilateral interoperability in any meaningful way. Still, the fact that these exercises have occurred with some regularity is indicative of a desire by all three parties, even if symbolic, to project an image of trilateral coordination.

Militarily, there is no indication that these exercises — or past editions — are intended to simulate a complex coordinated operation. Instead, they involve fairly standard tactical-level maritime exercise activities and have hardly changed in this focus over the years. The 2024 edition, called “Security Bond–2024” (or alternatively “Maritime Security Belt 2024”) was focused primarily on “firing at sea and armed rescue of hijacked merchant vessels.” Previous iterations of the exercises were similarly focused on simulated hijacked vessel rescue operationsand nighttime target shooting. The types of Russian and Chinese vessels involved in these exercises have changed little over the years.

In addition to the limited nature of what the exercises are, it is also instructive where they are. It is noteworthy that the Arabian Sea remains the sole area of operations where this “trilateralism” comes to life. This is no coincidence: The Arabian Sea is one of the few spaces where all three core elements of a potential axis mentioned above — challenging the U.S.-led order, facilitating economic partnerships, and shoring up security — converge in one place. In this particular environment, each country prioritizes these elements to different degrees. Russia sees the exercises as a means of moving forward its “Collective Security in the Persian Gulf” agenda, which was unveiled a few months before the first edition of trilateral exercises occurred in 2019. The exercises also play a role in furthering Moscow’s goal of becoming a “great maritime power,” which, as detailed in its 2022 naval doctrine, involves establishing a naval presence in the Persian Gulf. For Iran, the host nation, security is at the forefront, and the exercises respond to a desire for strengthened naval projection capabilities in the increasingly contested Indian Ocean region. For China, the exercises enhance the projection of its naval escort taskforce in the Gulf of Aden, which, along with a naval base in Djibouti, give Beijing a limited but permanent naval presence in this strategic corridor through which the majority of its oil is transported. In short, while the exercises are of limited relevance to strengthening interoperability between the three navies, each participant has specific, if limited, needs met through participating.

Individual Challenges

Beyond the fact that the naval exercises themselves are weaker as a means of trilateral cooperation than are often portrayed, a closer inspection reveals that each state brings to the table its own distinct issues that hinder the formation of such a more formalized trilateral axis.

One of the greatest impediments from the Iranian side is the fact that Tehran is pushing for a broader security cooperation coalition than the other two seemingly feel comfortable with. Although it is the newest member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, Tehran has been an ardent proponent of fundamentally refocusing the organization to serve as a conduit for greater military cooperation amongst all states. Immediately after Iran became a full member, Minister of Defense Brigadier General Mohammad-Reza Ashtiani declared that the “[Shanghai Cooperation Organization] member states share the responsibility for designing a new world order.” He called for the establishment of a “Shanghai Maritime Security Belt” — a new military zone that would protect trade between members. Though this has not materialized, the proclamation, if embraced, would have been indicative of a fundamental shift of the organization’s raison d’être,reorienting it from its founding focus on combating what China describes as “the Three Evils” — terrorism, separatism, and extremism — and toward protection against external state threats. Tellingly, neither Russia nor China has addressed this proposal publicly.

Indeed, for China, one of the biggest stumbling blocks to the creation of a formal alliance with Iran and Russia is, quite simply, it does not want one, at least in the way desired by Iran. First, Iran’s bravado in likening its cooperation with Russia and China to “a new NATO” is diametrically opposed to China’s preferred approach. Successive Chinese leaders, including Xi Jinping, have eschewed deep, binding security alliances. Second, for China, membership in an overtly anti-Western bloc with two global pariahs would fly in the face of its desire to explicitly avoid pursuing (or being perceived as pursuing) a full break with the United States. Given its significant “equities in the current international system,” China is likely reluctant to engage in an explicit counter-order that leads to a more severe rupture with Washington. After all, it was Beijing’s desire to avoid being perceived as part of an overtly anti-U.S. bloc that caused China to hesitate granting Iran full membership in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization for over a decade.

Russia’s challenge to the emergence of such a trilateral axis is not a lack of interest, but rather a lack of focus. Since its full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Moscow has been too overwhelmed to be a reliable partner. An illustrative example is Russia’s repeated failure to deliver the Su-35s that Iran had purchased. Another challenge that Russia brings to a would-be trilateral alliance is its reluctance to step in on Iran’s behalf in all circumstances. For instance, Russia has shown a limited willingness to push back against Israel’s ongoing attacks on Iranian facilities and personnel in Syria. There are, in other words, already clear limits to how far Russia is willing to extend its support for Iran.

A final challenge is that China diverges from Russia and Iran on its perspective on India’s role in all this. Indeed, both Iran and Russia appear to want something more than a trilateral alliance with China: Instead, they arguably seek a quadrilateral alliance that would include India and that would theoretically exert overwhelming influence throughout Eurasia. The Primakov doctrine, for example, names China and India explicitly as the powers with which Russia cooperates against the United States through a “strategic triangle.” Iran, meanwhile, looks favorably on both Russia and India as providing the means to bolster its economy, via participation in the International North-South Transport Corridor, in the face of Western sanctions. A trilateral alliance that excludes or antagonizes India, in short, is unlikely to gain much traction in Moscow or Tehran.

Beijing, by contrast, is not on board with inviting India into this tenuous axis. At present, China and India are increasingly competing for influence in South Asia. India has begun “flexing its naval power” in the Indian Ocean, deploying ships to its backyard to demonstrate to China that it does not have a monopoly on patrolling the region. The tensions extend to the naval exercises themselves: Following the first Russia-China-Iran trilateral in December 2019, a deadly border skirmish in 2020 led China and India to refuse invitations to participate in the second edition in early 2021. (In the end, only Russia and Iran participated in the 2021 exercises, which proved to be largely inconsequential.) Tellingly, India hosted multilateral naval exercises in February 2024, which included, among others, Russia and Iran, as well as the United States. China was not invited.

Finally, the ongoing Israel-Hamas war underscores the fact that where there does appear to be trilateral coordination, it is often limited to rhetorical alignment and nonmilitary diplomacy that is not exclusive to the trilateral grouping. Russian and Chinese narratives on Gaza, for instance, largely mirror those of Iran — critical of Israel and supportive of Hamas. Russian and Chinese officials have both met with Hamas leaders. When it comes to Gaza-related resolutions, the two countries have voted in tandem at the United Nations Security Council. Yet these rhetorical and diplomatic positions are hardly limited to members of the purported trilateral axis, but rather reflect a deeper global divide from which Russia and China seek to capitalize. Although ties between Israel and both Russiaand China have frayed as a result of these positions, both countries seek to preserve their positive relations with Israel, and neither has assisted Hamas on the battlefield.

The strengths and limits of trilateral coordination have also been on display in the Red Sea. In late January, China reportedly expressed its displeasure with Houthi anti-ship attacks and asked Iran to help rein them in. In mid-March, the Houthis purportedly struck a formal deal to not target Russian or Chinese vessels off Yemen’s coast. Days later, though, Houthi anti-ship ballistic missiles struck a Chinese merchant vessel, likely by mistake.

What’s Next

While bilateral relations between China, Russia, and Iran are robust, this does not alone amount to a trilateral axis. Indeed, the fact that the largely performative naval exercises off the Iranian coast are the only instance of trilateral military coordination between them, in addition to the individual challenges that each state brings to the table, is testament to the practical challenges facing such coordination.

Still, these exercises should not be written off as irrelevant. Cooperation can always deepen. Indeed, military ties between Russia, China, and Iran may well be on stronger footing than were the relations between the three World War II Axis powers (Germany, Italy, and Japan) prior to the Tripartite Pact of 1940, which created a defense alliance between the three countries. Structurally, the similarities between then and now are striking, with revisionist powers “seeking a dramatically transformed global order” at a time of global interdependence. As in World War II, a common enemy could well become a somewhat sudden, unifying externality.

Second, although the Russia-China-Iran trilateral axis does not appear to be blossoming into a trilateral alliance on the level of, for example, NATO, its emergence is suggestive of a new modus operandi. Russia, China, and Iran have all demonstrated an inclination to work individually and collectively to create a robust network of multilateral partnerships that erode U.S. security relationships by enticing U.S. partners to join one of their clubs. For instance, in the latest edition of the trilateral naval exercises, several countries were invited as observers, including Azerbaijan, India, Kazakhstan, Oman, Pakistan, and South Africa. The countries represent overlapping membership in several “alternative” multilateral organizations and projects, most importantly the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, BRICS, and the International North-South Transport Corridor. Thus, the creation of a variety of alternatives, rather than a single alternative, to the current order may prove more challenging.

As the United States and its allies consider the recent naval exercises between Iran, Russia, and China, they should refrain from fixating solely on this somewhat tenuous trilateral nexus. Instead, they should look at the broader trend toward multipolarity among countries committed to eschewing U.S. leadership. Regrettably, this trilateral engagement is but one symptom of a much larger problem.

What would a more pronounced Iran-Russia-China axis look like? One potential indicator of deepening trilateral engagement would be the public acknowledgment and inclusion of Tehran’s ambitious proposals for more structured military cooperation in the official discourse of Moscow and Beijing. Iran’s quest for Shanghai Cooperation Organization membership is an instructive example: After over a decade of resistance, Beijing eventually came around to the idea following sustained advocacy from Moscow and Tehran. If Moscow were to take Iran’s side and advocate for formalized military engagement among all three nations, it would represent a significant step in this direction, as together, the two states may be able to soften China’s position. Should Beijing, likely the most resistant partner, indicate its interest in the idea, a formalized military alliance could be imminent. Until then, observers should realize that for now, the axis is indeed off-kilter.


Lucas Winter is the senior Middle East analyst at the U.S. Army’s Foreign Military Studies Office, part of the U.S. Army’s Training and Doctrine Command G-2. He is co-director of the office’s M-DIME Research Project, which systematically assesses Russian and Chinese military influence across the globe. He has a M.A. in international relations from Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and was an Arabic language flagship fellow in Damascus, Syria, in 2006–2007. 

 Jemima Baar is a research fellow at the Foreign Military Studies Office. She is pursuing a master’s degree in international affairs at Columbia University, where she is an international fellow. She has been a research intern at the Council on Foreign Relations and a research assistant at Cambridge’s Center for Geopolitics.

 Dr. Jason Warner is the Director of Research at the Foreign Military Studies Office, where he is also the Senior Africa and Senior Terrorism and Transnational Crime Analyst. He is also co-director of the office’s M-DIME Research Project. Between 2016 and 2022, he was a civilian Assistant Professor in the Department of Social Sciences at the U.S. Military Academy (West Point). He holds a Ph.D. from Harvard University.

The opinions expressed in this piece are the authors’ and do not represent the views of the U.S. Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.


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