Strengthening partnership between China and Iran

Strengthening partnership between China and Iran

The reintegration of Iran in the world economy represents a critical opportunity for the strengthening of strategic ties between the Islamic Republic and the People’s Republic of China. Iran represents a vital partner for Beijing’s growing demand of energy and a remarkable bastion for the expansion of Chinese influence in the region.

The main pillar of the economic and strategic partnership between Iran and the China lies in Iran’s abundance of energy resources, an important asset for Beijing’s energy security strategy. The People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) demand for energy has risen dramatically in the last two decades, transforming the country from a net oil importer to the world’s second largest oil consumer.

In the past years, economic growth and industrial expansion has played a major role in ensuring political and social stability in the country and strengthening relations with a country rich in resources, like Iran. As already experienced in Central Asia, with the enhancement of relevant economic and energy partnerships with the Central Asia Republic, China envisions the creation of extended infrastructural networks based on the Silk Road initiative inaugurated by President Xi Jinping in 2013, in which Iran, given its strategic position, plays critical role.

Across the region, Iran is expected to grow as an oil supplier. Evan as it was economically isolated from the rest of the world, Iran established ties with Chinese state-owned enterprises such as the China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC). From 2003 till 2014, China was not only an important economic partner, but also the most important provider of investment and technology transfer, vital for the Iran’s modernization and economic development.

Without Beijing’s investments, the effect of harsh economic sanctions from the United States and other state actors would have seriously affected Iran’s economy and its strategic capability in the region. The removal of sanctions will boost Beijing’s capacity to increase the level of heavy crude oil supplied by Iran through the implantation of the infrastructure needed to produce and refine it.

Indeed, Beijing’s growing dependency has been an important element in the shaping of economic and diplomatic relations since the early 1990’s, foreshadowing the strategic dimension that Beijing’s engagement could represented in the Persian Gulf. Even during the highest peak of the Washington-Teheran confrontation, China has maintained a close partnership with the country, despite pressure from the international community.

Coinciding with the lifting of sanctions, the consolidated partnership with Iran provides a significant advantage to Chinese state-owned enterprises, such as CNPC, Sinopec and China National Off-shore Oil Company, that will soon rush into the country in an attempt to strike an important deal with the Islamic Republic.

Strategic dimension of the Sino-Iranian Partnership

Last week, there were rumors regarding Iran’s interest in purchasing 150 Chengdu J-10 fighters from China for a contract value of $1 billion. China has been an important military provider for Iran since the Iran-Iraq war in 1980, when the fragile Ayatollah’s power was still shaken from the turmoil of the Islamic revolutions, and its survival was threatened by Saddam’s territorial ambitions.

Since the 1980’s, Beijing has been an important partner in supplying Tehran with advanced military hardware, including tactical ballistic and anti-ships cruise missiles, and providing critical support for the development and expansion of the Iranian domestic military industry, a keystone of its military modernization.

From a strategic perspective, the PRC’s military support to Iran is part of a strategy that aims to establish the indirect influence of Beijing in the Middle East as the main tool to counter U.S. presence in the Persian Gulf. In the long term, this could include the expansion of the presence of People’s Liberation Army Navy in the region, in order to secure the Sea Lines of Communications, vital to protect the energy supplies transiting through the Persian Gulf.

In the foreseeable future, a stronger Chinese military presence in the region could be boosted by Iran’s decision to fully join the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) once sanctions against Tehran have been completely lifted. Despite the apparent appeasement with Washington, the freezing of nuclear ambitions in Tehran is likely to be balanced by the acquisition of conventional weapons to mitigate the sense of insecurity. In this scenario, Beijing could play a central role in providing military hardware while also helping Tehran to expand its cyber warfare capabilities.

Despite predictions to the contrary, Iran does not consider China a hegemonic and imperialistic power, and China has never questioned Tehran on its foreign policy, or on other important issues such as democracy, human rights, and non-proliferation. Instead, China has played an important role for the survival of the country for decades, and has supported Tehran in its military modernization and economic restructuring.

It is difficult, however, to foresee the evolution of a regional scenario in which China strengthens its relations with Iran to increase access to energy sources while also establishing a new influence over the Pacific Gulf, vital to fulfilling the Great Rejuvenation of the Chinese Nation. The willingness of Iran to abandon its Nuclear Program conceals Teheran’s desire to pursue realpolitik strategies rather than promoting a decrease in the level of confrontation in the region.

Nevertheless, the Obama administration’s desire to avoid any entanglement in the region, at the expense of the American strategic commitment over Asia Pacific, leaves room and opportunity for Beijing’s desire to increase its engagement in a region critical to its energy security.

About Author

Daniele Ermito

Daniele Ermito is a London-based analyst. He is also a GRI analyst and regular contributor for the Foreign Policy Association, where he writes mostly on the Koreas ‘blog. He holds a BA (Hons) in International Relations from the University of Bologna and a MSc in Asian Politics from the School of Oriental and African Studies. His areas of research include Northeast Asia security, Japanese politics and Chinese foreign policy. You can follow him on Twitter @DanielRmito.