Monday 15th of April 2024

Anu Sharma
Region : Middle East-North Africa, China,
Issue : Energy Security, Security,
During the recent visit of Chinese President Xi Jinping to Iran, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei had praised China for standing by Iran during sanctions. Recently, Iran had emerged from the years of economic isolation with the Western powers clearing the way for the lifting of sanctions. Over the past few decades, China and Iran have developed a deep partnership related to china’s energy needs and Iran’s abundant resources. The relationship has also become significant vis-à-vis non-energy economic ties, arms sales and defence cooperation including the geostrategic balancing against United States in the region.
Historically speaking, despite having trade relations since 1950s, Iran and China established and developed diplomatic relations in 1971. The symbiotic relations between the two nations grew through 1980s and 1990s, when in 1990s Beijing became major oil importer from Iran. However, the relationship between the two is attributed more to the fact both Iran and China are modern heirs of two proud and ancient civilizations. Their bilateral trade have to the certain extent been emphasized by this shared sense of cultural greatness, as well as, victimization by the western powers. History gives us enough evidences to believe that leaders of both the countries have strived hard to defend their own regime’s legitimacy in the international system, time and again. There are four major reasons cited for the enhanced relations between Iran and China--First, Jiang Zemin successfully consolidated his grip on power in 1997 skilfully managing China’s relationship with the United States; secondly, in spring 1999, the mistaken U.S. air strike on China’s embassy in Belgrade led to popular and elite pressures on the Chinese leadership to distance itself from the United States. Thirdly, in late 2001, China’s accession to the World Trade Organization (WTO) removed a source of U.S. leverage over China regarding Iran; and Finally, after the discovery of Iran’s secret uranium enrichment program in 2002, and with the sanctions in place the Western companies began to withdraw from Iran thereby, opening up new opportunities for Chinese firms and diplomats to build economic and strategic ties with Tehran. With the sanctions being imposed and pressure by the United States on Russia, Japan, South Korea, India and Europe gave a freer hand to China to become involved in Iran’s underserved domestic market and develop its energy resources.
From the Iranian perspective there exist many reasons for the cordial relations between Iran and China. One of the notable reasons is the fact that Iran had viewed China as an ally in its antagonism against the United States. Iran had been locked in the bitter conflict with the United States in the volatile Middle Eastern region. In the greater geopolitical game in the region, China had been a reliable partner for Iran in the limited number of allies it had. Also, in a more recent scenario, China had become a kind of protector for the Iranian regime.
China’s aims in relations with controversial foreign regimes are most often to promote economic ties that serve its self-interest rather than to choose a preferred political ideology. Even as China has maintained amiable relations with the West, it has still been criticized for doing business with authoritarian regimes. However, China still claims of a policy of “non-interference in internal affairs.” Although regular trade relations with many authoritarian regimes and the regular trade to supply goods to the people, trade in weapons and nuclear materials supports violence and can be easily regarded as interference in internal affairs.
Many analysts have argued that Beijing does not want Iran to acquire nuclear weapons as it could lead to diminished status of the Chinese presence in the Middle Eastern region. However, post nuclear deal in 2015, various measures were adopted by China to increase its trade and investment in Iran. “Those who were our friend during sanctions will receive our friendship to the same proportion,” said Iranian Oil Minister Bijan Zanganeh. Many leaders both in Iran and the western world have an opinion that it is no coincidence that Chinese leader Xi Jinping visited Iran a week after the sanctions were rolled back. China wants to ensure that it has the head start in the coming race to increase the economic ties with Iran. Not only this, Iran plays an important role in China’s “one belt one road initiative”. Earlier this year in February 2016, the first cargo train from China to Iran completed its 6,462 -mile journey from Zhejiang province (just south of Shanghai on China’s eastern coast) to Tehran. According to the Iranian Railway official, the trip took just 14 days, which is a full 30 days shorter than the maritime voyage from Shanghai’s port to the Iranian port at Bandar Abbas. Regarded as the revival of the Silk Road, this route has great potential for both China and Iran to increase their mutual trade. China sees this route as a part of its larger One Belt, One Road initiative. Iran, for its part, is intent on becoming a regional rail hub, seeing Chinese trains continue on to Europe via its territory. This has become an important rail connection and Iran has remained an oil supplier to China. China also invested heavily in Iranian roads, factories and infrastructure for quite some time now. In return for oil, Beijing has flooded Iranian markets with cheap consumer goods and established relationships in non-oil sectors like construction, manufacturing and transportation. Last year, China raised its quota for infrastructure investment in Iran by over 50 percent. Chinese companies now occupy an optimal position for gaining non-oil concessions and investments after sanctions are removed, leaving other companies and investors a step behind. High-profile Chinese projects include the 5-kilometer Niayesh tunnel in Tehran, one of the longest in the world, and the city’s Chinese-designed metro system. The two countries have also found common ground in their opposition to U.S. interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Iran may look to China for military support, although the nuclear agreement’s restrictions on arms and missiles sales may postpone this association. Iranian-Chinese military cooperation stretches back to the 1980s, when China provided Iran with arms, tactical ballistic missiles, and anti-ship cruise missiles in its fight against Iraq. Since then, China had facilitated Iran’s military modernization, even being suspected of transferring technology and equipment to Iran via North Korea.
There are two major points of probable conflict in Iran-China relations—one is China intensifying its efforts to gain access to the energy resources of the Caspian Sea region. China’s main initiative is to reduce its dependency on the maritime oil exports from the Persian Gulf states. Beijing’s plan to build pipeline access to the Caspian Sea region via Iran emphasizes the symbiotic relationship between Tehran and Beijing. In this respect, China has a strong interest in seeing a secure Iranian regime. The Second point is of Iran’s greater influence in the Shanghai Cooperation Council (SCO). Since 2005, Iran has had observer status in the SCO. In 2008, Tehran announced it would seek full SCO membership, but was rejected because Iran was subject to U.N. sanctions. After the nuclear deal was announced in 2015, SCO Secretary General Dmitry Mezentsev said that relief from sanctions could pave the way for Iran’s full membership in the SCO. It should be kept in mind that SCO was formed in 1996 to de-militarize the border between China and Soviet Union.
China has been careful to balance its new friendship with Iran by also cosying up to the Saudis. Just before his trip to Tehran, President Xi paid a visit to Riyadh, where he presided over the opening of a Chinese-funded oil research center and an oil refinery—and he talked with King Salman about a peaceful solution to conflicts in Yemen and Syria. However, for Saudis the matter of concern is the Chinese money and arms that in turn, are creating a stronger Iran and in a way providing a necessary counterbalance to the power of Saudi Arabia.
Analysts are concerned over the fact that the uninterrupted supply of the post-sanctions oil money, combined with an influx of state-of-the-art Chinese military technology will encourage Iranian aggressiveness. According to Joshua Landis, head of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma, “Materially, Iran will have more money to spend on war. In the six months since the nuclear deal was signed in Vienna, Iran has already stepped up its military activity in the region.”
Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of FORE INDIA

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