China and Iran: what is the relationship about?

China is expanding its interests (Photo by Adobe)

In this article Ahmad Abdul-Rahman asks about the extent to which China's relationship with Iran serves its geopolitical and economic interests.

The latest agreement between China and Iran reinforces a strategic relationship whose dimensions go beyond economic goals. China is focusing its attention on geopolitics, pursuing policies that serve its interests in the Middle East, Eurasia, and Asia/Pacific, in particular.

Since 2010, China has been the largest importer of oil in the world. It is also aiming to strengthen its global position economically by the middle of this century. There are those who are worried about the rise of China because its commercial expansion depends on saturating markets with Chinese goods. The country also needs major structural reforms to reach these markets. Chinese competition with global powers such as America and India also creates issues that may be difficult to overcome, particularly in terms of its maritime influence, the fact that it is getting closer to countries in the Middle East, and that America no longer has exclusivity when it comes to making international decisions.

The nearly USD 400 billion Sino-Iranian deal signed in June 2020 sparked widespread controversy because of its size and its timing. If the goal was purely economic, it is unlikely that China would benefit greatly from it, given the continuation of US sanctions on Iran and the very weak Iranian economy.

However, there are different ways by which China monitors its relations with Iran. The Sino-Iranian rapprochement is very sensitive to Chinese interests. With China's efforts in the Silk Road project reaching an advanced stage, China is trying to emphasize the importance of its economic project and the integrity of its intentions, by linking logistical supply routes with Iran, which connects it to very important geopolitical markets. 

The Iranian-Chinese rapprochement cannot be excluded from the progress that China is making in Eurasia. The China-Iran partnership could continue to make progress and possibly prosperity in the future. 

According to Chinese politicians, Iran is one of the most important countries in its Belt and Road Initiative, which was announced in September 2013. The initiative is an effort to develop an expanded, interdependent market, grow its economic and political power, and create the right conditions for it to build a high technology economy. 

China takes an approach that protects the initiative by empowering more countries like Iran, even though it is concerned about opposing trade channels such as Russia and India. It is also vying with India, with both countries trying to get a larger share of the gas market and gain greater influence in Central Asia.

For this reason, the number of the countries participating and benefiting from the Belt and Road Initiative will deepen China's confidence in its partners in Central Asia, not only Pakistan but also Afghanistan and Nepal. Iran is unique in that it links with Central Asia geographically and has lines of communication with other countries in the region as well as open economic relations.

The withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan in May 2021 brought about a new phase of anxiety about Central Asia. This withdrawal gave hope to some of the great powers that they could enhance their influence in that region.

While China hopes to achieve greater security by stabilizing Afghanistan, Russia also shares with China a desire to deter the expected threats arising from the security vacuum there, since this may drag extremists into conflict with Russia. For its part, Iran will support any rapprochement between China and Russia to maintain efforts and activities that will limit the influence of the Shiite minority in Afghanistan, especially since Beijing does not want an Islamic emirate there..

Geopolitically, the policies China is pursuing to counter US pressures are more appropriate than ever. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi emphasized this on his recent visit to Iran, saying that China has been consistent in opposing unreasonable unilateral sanctions imposed on Iran by other countries because it violates international law. Wang also stressed that sanctions are an affront to human conscience, and China is willing to work with Iran and other countries to jointly counter bullying by other powers, uphold international fairness and justice and defend the basic rules of international relations.

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Thursday, 27 January 2022