China and Iran: Will Diplomatic Isolation Bind two American Rivals Closer Together?

Published August 6th, 2019 - 12:09 GMT
Chinese President Xi Jinping (L) Iranian President Hassan Rouhani (R) / AFP
Chinese President Xi Jinping (L) Iranian President Hassan Rouhani (R) / AFP

 

In 1983, the Chinese government made an intervention which would shape the course of the conflict between Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and the revolutionary regime in Iran. Whilst China had offered tentative support to Saddam until this point as a bulwark against Soviet expansion in Central Asia, Russia’s withdrawal from the conflict led Beijing to throw its weight behind the Iranian war effort.
 



China recognised that Iran had proved an important thorn in America’s side whilst Iran was grateful for desperately needed military resources and diplomatic allyship. Most importantly, leaders in Beijing and Tehran saw themselves in some senses as ideological fellow travellers. Whilst the Islamism of the Ayatollah’s project was distant from China’s secularist revolutionary communist ambitions, both nations saw themselves as inheritors of great historic civilisations and as key sources of resistance to Western imperialism and American hegemony in the Third World.
 

Whilst the Islamism of the Ayatollah’s project was distant from China’s secularist revolutionary communist ambitions, both nations saw themselves as inheritors of great historic civilisations and as key sources of resistance to Western imperialism and American hegemony in the Third World

 
The world has changed drastically since this time: China has transitioned from a populous state on the periphery of global politics to an emergent superpower, whilst Iran, despite its public rhetoric has dropped many of its more revolutionary ambitions. Tehran and Beijing have long maintained important diplomatic, economic and strategic relations, yet recent events may draw these two allies closer together. The combined effects of US President Donald Trump’s increasingly aggressive stance in relation to Iran, signalled by withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action on Iran’s nuclear programme and his escalation of a damaging trade war with China may incentivise cooperation between these two states.
 

The combined effects of US President Donald Trump’s increasingly aggressive stance in relation to Iran, signalled by withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action on Iran’s nuclear programme and his escalation of a damaging trade war with China may incentivise cooperation between these two states

Last Tuesday, the speaker of the Iranian Majlis Ali Larijani met with Song Tao the head of the International Liaison Department of the Communist Party of China in Tehran. Mr Larijani told reporters that US hostility towards Iran and China was ‘strategic and deep’ and proposed that ‘strategic thinking should be followed to counter this animosity’.

Mr Song expressed enthusiasm for Mr Larijani proposal to draw up a 25-year plan for relations between the two countries and stressed the ideological affinities between their two states: ‘Iran and China’s experience suggest that developing countries do not need to copy the Western developmental model.’ The meeting fits into a broader pattern of increasing dialogue between the two states. Mr Larijani had met with Chinese Premier Xi Jinping in February to express Iran’s readiness to co-operate with China on its landmark One Belt, One Road project which would traverse Iranian territory. Mr Xi returned the favour, declaring ‘No matter how the international and regional situations change, China’s resolve to develop comprehensive strategic partnerships with Iran will remain unchanged’.

Officers from both nations will be taking part in the Russian organised International Army Games this month and have long been engaged in joint naval drills in the Persian Gulf. Iran, an observer member of the Chinese led Shanghai Cooperation Organisation which aims at containing the spread of Western influence in Eurasia and the Pacific, has long expressed interest in closer integration with the organisation.

China may increase its naval presence in the Persian Gulf as part of a US led mission dubbed "Operation Sentinel" /AFP

Iran has significant interests in closer relations with China. As economic sanctions continue to bite, Beijing may help shield Tehran from diplomatic and economic isolation. Since the 1990s, China has financed billions of dollars’ worth of city improvement projects in Tehran including the city’s metro service; has aided in the construction of the large hydroelectric Rudbar Lorestan Dam, and has begun construction on rail services between Xinjiang province in Western China and Tehran, passing through Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Afghanistan. The provision of arms and military technology has become increasingly crucial to the Iranian regime given worsening relations between Iran and Russia in recent years and Iran’s recent isolation from Western partners.  

Since the 1990s, China has financed billions of dollars’ worth of city improvement projects in Tehran including the city’s metro service

Strategic interests run both ways. Relations between Iran and China have tended to be governed largely by energy cooperation and Iran is believed to hold the world’s second largest natural gas reserves. Chinese economic expansion has long been fuelled by exports of Iranian heavy crude oil. Under trade pressures from the USA, China has recently sought to diversify its export markets. Populous, middle income Iran has long proved a useful market for Chinese goods. Strategically, Iranian actions in the Middle East may embroil the United States in a regional conflict allowing China to expand its influence in Central Asia and the Pacific.

Yet obstacles remain in regard to potential cooperation between Beijing and Tehran. Iran remains deeply invested in notions of national sovereignty and has long tended to avoid overt external patronage. Chinese influence is treated with hostility in Iran. During Iran’s waves of popular protest in 2009 and in 2017-18, chants of ‘Death to China’ were heard on the streets of Tehran, with Beijing accused of sponsoring the more repressive branches of Iran’s security apparatus.

More importantly, Iran’s influential business owning middle class fears a flooding of Iranian markets by cheap Chinese goods. Reservations remain stronger on Beijing’s sides. As China attempts to negotiate its way out of punitive American sanctions, close relations with Iran may prove counterproductive. Though China remains Iran’s primary trade partner, the volume of trade between China and the USA, estimated at $633 billion in 2018 dwarfs the $38 billion in estimated trade between China and Iran.

As China attempts to negotiate its way out of punitive American sanctions, close relations with Iran may prove counterproductive. Though China remains Iran’s primary trade partner, the volume of trade between China and the USA, estimated at $633 billion in 2018 dwarfs the $38 billion in estimated trade between China and Iran.

Iran may prove an important partner in security arrangements but its erratic foreign policy risks embroiling China in conflicts that it would prefer to avoid. China’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative which seeks to economically and infrastructurally integrate Eurasia and the Middle East with Beijing requires the preservation of alliances with a range of regional powers, a desire likely precluded by Tehran’s penchant for geopolitical conflict.

Yet worsening relations between Beijing and Washington could bring about a wider shift in geopolitical relations in Central and West Asia yet. Foreign policy decisions considered by Mr Trump’s administration in isolation could come to culminate in the formation of more powerful alliances averse to Washington’s interests.
 

The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of Al Bawaba News.


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