By Iran Review
By Masoud Rezaei*
At a time that most analysts are talking about ups and downs in cooperation or strategic alliance between Iran and Russia in Syria and its impact on the whole Middle East, relations between Iran and China are not progressing as they should. This seems to be more true in the light of the fact that successful nuclear talks between Iran and the P5+1 group of countries have increased Iran’s international legitimacy and Iran and China are expected to move with more speed toward cementing their strategic cooperation following the conclusion of Iran’s nuclear deal, which is known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Perhaps, China’s unwillingness for serious involvement in the issues of the Middle East and the priority it gives to the country’s economic growth are the main reasons behind this situation. We know that officials in Beijing want the rise in China’s power to take place without any conflict at international level, but Iran is willing to make sure that under new conditions, its relations with China will not be affected by any third country as has been the case in past years.
A problem, which exists in this regard, is the “problem of certainty in the Islamic Republic of Iran’s foreign policy.” It means that sustained hostility of Tehran toward Washington and some Western countries has constantly sent the message to Eastern powers like Russia and China that Tehran has no choice, but to get closer to these countries in a certain manner and under any conditions. This issue will make China think that it has been supporting Iran for a long time and that Iran is permanently in debt and also in need of this country. Although Beijing cannot ignore the geopolitical position of Iran and knows that in the future Iran will be the most important country in the Middle East for China and for the implementation of the land Silk Road project, the issue of certainty in Iran’s foreign policy has dampened China’s political and strategic motivations to make any effort to satisfy Iran.
Right after Iran’s nuclear deal, which has concluded in July 2015, the administration of Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani indicated its willingness to get closer to the West and some international media talked about a possible rapprochement between Iran and the United States. Thereafter, many countries sent their representatives to Tehran in order to take advantage of this opportunity and Iran’s effort to get back to global economy. China was no exception to this rule. As a result, China’s President Xi Jinping was the first world leader to visit Iran following the signing of Iran’s nuclear agreement. In an article that he wrote in the state-run Iran newspaper upon his arrival, Xi talked about the need to revive the Silk Road and indicated his country’s agreement to Iran’s permanent membership at the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, which is mostly a regional security group. However, a few months after the JCPOA, when Iran sent the categorical message to the world that its negotiations with the United States would be only limited to the nuclear issue and there would be no rapprochement between Tehran and Washington, Beijing backed down on its previous positions with regard to boosting defense cooperation with Tehran and also rescinded its support for Iran’s membership at the Shanghai Cooperation Organization during the organization’s summit meeting in Tashkent.
At a time that Russia clearly emphasizes the need for Iran to become a full member of the organization, lack of China’s support for a change in the state of Iran’s membership and statements by China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi to the effect that Beijing was willing to first consider membership of India and Pakistan at the Shanghai Cooperation Organization resulted in serious dissatisfaction of the Islamic Republic. Several factors have been mentioned as the main reasons that have reduced China’s willingness to boost defense cooperation with Iran and support a change in Iran’s state at the Shanghai Cooperation Organization from observer country to a full member. Those factors include China’s concerns about the situation in Tajikistan and the negative impact of Iran’s membership at this organization, which could be followed by Iran’s support for Islamist movement of Tajikistan, which is an immediate neighbor of China; Beijing’s vast relations with Washington; China’s lack of trust in the political and economic processes in Iran following the JCPOA; the type of relations that exist between Iran and the United States, especially in the run-up to forthcoming presidential elections in Iran and the United States; China’s possible dissatisfaction with close ties between Iran and India, especially after a recent trilateral deal among Iran, India and Afghanistan for development of Iran’s southeastern Chabahar port; and ambiguities surrounding Iran’s role with regard to the Silk Road project.
This issue, however, would most probably not continue for long. It would suffice to remember the conflict in the South China Sea and the fact that the Pacific Ocean and the Indian Ocean are considered as regions, which will define the 21st century. In the meantime, the smart step taken by the US President Barack Obama in shifting his country’s focus toward Asia-Pacific region will inevitably cause China to pay more attention to the Middle East and a country like Iran, which is not considered as a US ally in the Persian Gulf. It is evident that the United States’ foremost concern is to prevent further domination of China over East Asia. Of course, certain measures taken by officials in Beijing, including the ongoing disputes with the Philippines and Vietnam, which highlight challenges that currently face China, have made achievement of this goal relatively easier for Washington. Asia is a crowded continent and any aggressive measure taken by Beijing will elicit angry reactions from its neighboring countries. In the meantime, India, which in the past resisted the temptation to take any measure that would be considered by China as collusion with the United States, has thrown caution to the wind and has been moving in this direction during recent months. On the other hand, Obama administration has been expanding security cooperation with some of its traditional allies such as Japan, Australia, and Singapore and it was through US support that the Philippines took its dispute with China to the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) in The Hague and emerged victorious.
On the other hand, Iran enjoys a determining position in and is of high importance to political equations related to the Indian Ocean. Basically speaking, China considers Iran not only as a factor to guarantee free flow of crude oil from the Persian Gulf, but also sees Tehran as future guarantor of energy security along the Silk Road. The Strait of Malacca is considered as one of the most important marine routes in the world through which passes more than 15 million barrels of crude oil per day. A large part of oil exported from the Persian Gulf region to markets in Asian countries and China goes through this strait after crossing the Indian Ocean and is delivered to customers. Due to presence and control of American warships on this strait and in case of a possible future crisis between China and the United States, Iran-Pakistan energy pipeline and also Iran’s link to Turkmenistan’s gas pipeline, which can take natural gas to China, would be considered as the main sources to meet vital needs of China in such a situation and Iran would be able to help China circumvent the Strait of Malacca under these conditions.
Therefore, at present, China and the United States are at serious odds over a host of strategic issues from the Indian Ocean to the South China Sea and, in parallel, China needs to go ahead with the Silk Road project for which it is badly in need of Iran due to its geopolitical and geostrategic position. Such strategic and geopolitical considerations at global level will cause Tehran to be able to impose its importance on Beijing in the near future despite the problem of certainty in Iran’s foreign policy and China’s doctrine of peaceful development and concurrent with West’s mounting pressure on China at a time that Iran’s international role and its stabilizing impact in the region are getting stronger. In fact, although the United States has been the main variable that has impeded further closeness between Iran and China up to the present time, its actions can be expected to make China more inclined toward Iran in the future.
*Masoud Rezaei, PhD in International Relations & Visiting Research Fellow at the Institute for Middle East Strategic Studies (CMESS), Tehran