Challenging Iran - China Strategic Ties

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Nasser Saghafi Ameri
15 شهریور 1390

The growing China- Iran relation during the past decade has irked Washington which in its policy of confrontation pursues vigorous economic sanctions against Tehran. In Washington's view China's economic and trade ties with Iran had hampered success of its containment policy against Iran. Amid that background, on September 2nd Reuters in a dispatch from Beijing reported that under pressure from Washington, China has put the brakes on oil and gas investments in Iran. Previously, in June 2010, Washington was successful in obtaining China's vote in favor of UNSCR resolution, which placed additional sanctions on Iran.

Those moves by China raise the question about Iran's place in China's strategic overview. It seems that China is guided in its policy toward Iran by three primary principles. First, it is the sanctity of Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT).  China as one of the five nuclear powers recognized by this Treaty cherishes its privileged position. Second, are the relations with the United States and Europeans that China values very much and considers it to be vital for its rapid economic progress. And finally, it is the very important and rapid growing ties with Iran that China aims to keep it moving on track.

Regarding the NPT, China like other major powers and  as one of the five permanent UN Security Council members, and one of the five nuclear power states recognized by the NPT, tends to safeguard and utilize the unique and privileged status inherited from the established post WW-2 international system. True, China's position on some issues like nuclear disarmament is more progressive than other nuclear power states. China says it stands for complete abolition of nuclear weapons, but yet China like other nuclear weapon states does not wish to see other countries namely Japan join this exclusive club. More importantly, China is cautious not to be singled out among the five UNSC permanent members for their seemingly legitimate attempt to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons. Besides that China saw little harm in voting for the sanction against Iran since that would have no real effect on its growing relations with Iran and in reality it may serve as a booster to those relations when trade with the West becomes more difficult as a result of additional sanctions. Thus, in another perspective, the US and its allies have gained little or nothing by pressuring China for sanctioning Iran at the UNSC. Furthermore, China may have gained more leverage in its relations with the USA over Taiwan, which is claimed to be in the core of China's national interest.

Beijing's relationship with Washington and Brussels is a complicated one vacillating from partners to competitors. While there are areas of political tensions that periodically strains their relations (Taiwan in the USA and human rights following Tiananmen episode in the EU) the relationship is underpinned by trade and economic ties. All that started when China decided to modernize its techno-economic structures and to attune its economic system to capitalism.  The high level of trade and economic interactions between the two sides speaks for themselves.   China-U.S. trade volume is predicted to exceed 450 billion U.S. dollars in 2011. The United States has invested a total of 65.2 billion U.S. dollars in some 59,000 projects as of the end of 2010 in China. China with 1.2 trillion US dollars is the US's largest debt holder. China is the EU's second most trading partner behind the USA. Bilateral trade volume between China and Europe reached $430 billion during the first 11 months of 2010. China has expressed its desire to maintain stable relations with the United States, although China's economic rise might lead to some geo-political frictions between them in the future.

As far as relations with Iran are concerned, there are several compelling elements that attract China's strategic attention toward Iran. Iran is an emerging regional power that had spread its influence from the borders of China to the shores of the Mediterranean Sea.  It is not an exaggeration to say that no solution for this most conflict ridden region of the world could be found without the active engagement of Iran.  The most vivid case is Afghanistan, which both Iran and China are neighbors to it. The role that Iran can play to bring peace and stability to Afghanistan is quite an established fact that many including policymakers in Washington are very well aware of it; although,  internal politics and anti-Iran lobby in Washington has prevented tangible cooperation with Iran in Afghanistan and elsewhere.

Then, there is the role that Iran plays as a buffer to what has been considered by some observers as encroachment of the NATO and the US military forces to the East. With NATO forces at China's borders in Afghanistan it is Iran that thwart the linkage of the USA and NATO forces that stretches from Europe to Turkey and Iraq on Iran's western borders. Under those circumstances and while China has been designated by strategist in Washington as the main strategic threat to the USA, it is not inconceivable to think of some policy makers in Beijing who would view a powerful Iran as a counterweight to U.S. dominance in the region.

Iran's role as a buffer has not been exclusively for the Western military forces pushing their way to the East, but also for Al Qaeda and other extremist forces that attempted to infiltrate to Iraq from Afghanistan after 9/11 and to establish their network in the region.  The critical role that Iran played during the past decade and before that to deter and neutralize those forces is yet to be recognized and appreciated by international community. Thus, it was not unexpected that after a decade of unsuccessful military campaign by the USA and its allies against the Al Qaeda and Taliban many including in the Western intelligence community have come to the conclusion that a solution should be sought through political dialogue rather than use of military forces. That deduction implies that the antidote to extremist ideologies mainly derived from Salafism and Wahhabism ideologies should be sought within the context of an Islamic dialogue. Iran with its Shiite ideology of moderation despises any extremist ideologies that are spreading in the region in the name of Islam. While security risks implied in the spread of extremist ideologies to the restive Xingjian province in China is one of the most important concerns in the minds of policymakers in Beijing, Islam could now become another element in consolidating Iran-China relations.

One more issue in the review of security perspective of the region is the so-called colored revolutions that occurred in some of the former republics of Soviet Union. Although those uprisings have now subdued, the possibility of their recurrence with the strong impulse emanating from the "Arab Spring", cannot be disregarded.   The founders of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) defined the establishment of peace and stability in the region and combating separatism and extremism as one of the main goals of this organization. Having that in mind, China like Russia might soon come to the conclusion that elevating Iran's status at the SCO to full membership could enhance the role it can play in neutralizing the extremism in the region through establishing a meaningful dialogue on all range of security issues. 
The last but not least relates to China's relations with Iran.  Obviously, those relations are not confined to energy and economic ties. Iran while having the second largest oil reserves in the world ( after Saudi-Arabia), and the second largest gas reserves in the world ( after Russia) , enjoys a unique geostrategic position,  the country overlooks two regions holding the most richest energy resources of the world; namely Persian Gulf and the Caspian Sea. Iran is uniquely positioned to offer access to oil and gas from those regions via pipelines to China. This would be a great strategic asset for China since it can rely on safe supply of its energy especially during the time of war or conflict when sea blockade is imposed.

In recent years, attempts have been made by the USA to lure China away from expanding trade with Iran. In that attempt and to entice China the Saudi oil has been offered as an alternative to Iranian oil supplies. That policy has not worked in the past and is improbable to succeed in the future. China has a robust economic relationship with Iran. Bilateral trade is estimated to be $40 billion for 2011.  The fact that lapses in the thinking of some of the policymakers in Washington is that Iran is not like some other countries a mere oil supplier to China. Iran is an emerging power with the potential to have strategic links with China and other major powers. Chinese President Hu Jintao in the course of June 2009 meeting of the SCO while referring to the importance of relations with Iran stated that “We are quite confident that friendly and profound economic relations between the two countries should continue forever".

By pressuring China to impose additional sanction against Iran, the USA is unwittingly opening the avenue for China to expand its trade and economic ties with Iran. In the past while Western energy companies were sidelined by sanctions, Chinese firms had stepped in to fill the void. Similarly, dissuading Chinese companies to invest in Iranian oil and gas sector could also prove counterproductive to Western interests. Usually, foreign investments are sought by countries for financial resources as well as access to advanced technologies. As far as financial resources are concerned, Iran has ample amount of resources at its disposal. As for access to advanced technology Iran has been on Western sanctions for many years and it has manage to get its way around, although with more money to spend and some delays. Thus, the end result of this latest attempts by Washington to discourage Chinese companies to invest in Iran could hardly have an impact on the growing Iran –China relations; while contradictorily  it could push Iran more toward the East.