China-Iran strategic partnership — genesis and future by Talat Masood

Iran's closeness to China is largely attributed to President Trump's inimical policies towards Iran

At the conclusion of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to Tehran in 2016, the two countries announced a major agreement that covered a broad canvas of bilateral relations and regional and international issues based on “Comprehensive Strategic Partnership”. It was meant to deepen and broaden the scope of their relationship.

President Trump’s decision to withdraw from the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran and impose comprehensive sanctions on it had a debilitating effect on Iran’s economy.

With Iran under severe political pressure and economic squeeze was eagerly looking to reduce this burden by developing a close relationship with China.

It equally suited Beijing to strengthen its ties with Tehran. Apart from Iran being an important Muslim country and a close neighbour, it is also a major oil producing country.

In fact, the strategic agreement noted “that under the current conditions of deepening multilaterisation of international order and globalisation of the economy, the bilateral ties between Iran and China have gained strategic importance….” The two countries also aimed at concluding a bilateral 25-year Comprehensive Cooperation Agreement on their agendas. Significantly, the Iranian side welcomed “the Silk Road Economic Belt and the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road” and the promotion of industrial and maritime capabilities by China.

Nevertheless, seasoned observers are of the view that there is nothing especially threatening to the US or its allies in the document. Military and security cooperation was already taking place and become a norm among friendly countries and allies. Cooperation in areas of counterterrorism, trafficking, and transnational crime is now a common phenomenon among friendly countries and is for the general good of the region and the world.

In essence, international observers downplayed these developments. Interestingly, the Chinese side has not tried to hype it either. This was evident from the recent foreign ministers meeting of China and Iran where they were more focused on coronavirus and the joint action plan.

What needs to be kept in perspective is that China has much larger interests in the region and has comprehensive strategic partnership agreements with Saudi Arabia and the UAE. It would certainly like to maintain a balance in its relations with these competing powers in the region to maximise its leverage. For China’s ambitions go beyond regional alignments.

This is clearly evident from the fact that China has strong diplomatic and trade relations with Arab countries. It regularly participates in the ministerial meetings with Arab countries and values its ties with them. Incidentally, the last meeting was held only recently. It just so happens that other international events overshadowed the event and did not attract much publicity. As reported in press, it resulted in the signing of three policy documents that included a Covid-19 pledge of cooperation, an execution plan for the Conference of the China-Arab States Cooperation Forum (CASCF) from 2020-2022 and the Amman Declaration, which “expresses the desire of China and Arab states to deepen relations…. And reiterates mutual support on the issues of core interests and major concerns.”

This is not to imply that the Arab governments would not be wary of the China-Iran ties. Unsurprisingly, as leaked media reports indicate that the China-Iran cooperation was discussed and Chinese representative tried to assure the members that it is not directed against them.

China has vast interests in the Middle East and is building a multifaceted relationship with major countries of the region. For Beijing, Iran has its importance, but it is not a zero-sum game. Chinese companies have invested heavily in the region and it would like to further expand and consolidate these relations and will ensure that its developing strategic partnership with Iran does not stand in any way with Arab countries.

The news that China will invest $400 billion in Iran attracted global attention, but has been received with a high degree of skepticism by neutral observers. It seems to be a highly exaggerated assumption considering the present state of Iran’s economy and its ability to absorb such a huge amount of investment. Moreover, no Chinese bank would like to stake its credibility by defying international sanctions and invest in this project. China, maintaining a balanced approach, would make investments in energy and infrastructure in Iran somewhat more than it has done in other BRI countries. Apparently, Iran would sell its oil in return for investments from China.

According to international sources the draft agreement is very ambitious and includes nearly 100 projects that include high-speed railways and 5G telecommunication networks, free-trade zones, etcetera.

Previously, it was the US and other Western countries that invested in the Middle East and were also taking care of their security. With deep economic engagement in strategic projects China is also supporting Iran’s efforts at strengthening its defence.

Iran’s closeness to China is largely attributed to President Trump’s inimical policies towards Iran. With the US hostility toward China becoming more intense nothing suits Iran better than to have a powerful partner as China. It equally suits China to have Iran, a major Muslim country, strategically located and a strong US adversary as an ally.

According to press reports, China plans to develop a port at Jask that would give it a huge advantage as much of world’s oil passes through the region. It is in close proximity to Bahrain where the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet is headquartered.

For quite some time Iran has been steadily turning toward developing closer relations with Asian countries rather than look towards the West. It not only wants to strengthen its relations with China but would also build bridges with South Korea, which it admires for its rapid economic progress and self-reliance in industrialisation and energy production.

Iran’s relations with India have received a serious setback as under US pressure it set aside its agreement wherein it was supposed to develop the Chabahar port and associated infrastructure. This will provide additional space to China to expand its cooperation with Iran.

With Washington and Beijing all poised toward a potential cold war, the China-Iran proposed strategic partnership acquires even greater significance.

­Published in The Express Tribune, July 22nd, 2020.

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