China’s growing relations with Middle Eastern countries have “falsely” been perceived as a “threat” to the American hegemony in the region (Lons & Fulton, 2019). There is a common misperception in Western literature that the so-called “Chinese Giant” is posing tremendous challenges to the interests of the Americans, not only in the Middle East but also in other strategic regions.
Some studies have even gone further to describe China’s rise in the MENA region as a part of the “wary dragon” strategy (Nader& Schobell, 2016). Meanwhile, there is a limited number of studies made on China from a Middle Eastern standpoint, which in turn, has contributed to the development of biased studies on Beijing’s policies in the MENA region (Nader & Schobell, 2016).
False accusations against China were further exaggerated during the latest Arab Chinese summit that was held in Saudi Arabia in early December of 2022 (Ebrahim, 2022). Western scholars have even drawn comparisons between Riyadh’s response to Xi Jinping’s visit and the Saudis’ cold welcoming of President Joe Biden back in July of the same year (Rai, 2022).
In this sense, Western literature fails to grasp the complexities of China’s relations with the Middle East. Western scholars have blindly followed the American-led campaign against Beijing, without having a deeper understanding of China’s motives, goals, and challenges in the region (Nader & Schobell, 2016). China does not seem, at least for now, to challenge the American security-led system in the Middle East.
Neither China nor the US is ready to start a military conformation (Christensen, 2020). Instead, Beijing is aware of the consequences of a direct military confrontation with Washington, especially in a war-torn region like the Middle East, where the oil factor remains a top priority on the Chinese agenda (Lai, 2007).
Beijing has been very cautious in its responses to conflicts in the Middle East (Haddad-Fonda, 2014). It has been dealing with all actors and expanding relations even with two contending camps, namely the Saudi-led and the Iranian-led camps (Harlod & Nader, 2012; Guzansky & Orion, 2017).
It has become necessary to re-examine China’s policies in the region from a Middle Eastern standpoint, to assess its motives and goals from a less biased, and more neutral lens. It is important to note, however, that Beijing’s policies are not immune from criticism. As will be mentioned in the last section of the paper, China is expected to face a plethora of challenges if it keeps its “cautious” approach towards military cooperation with the countries of the region.
Also, there are doubts regarding the extent to which it could balance relations with all regional actors, without getting indulged in regional conflicts. While Iran and Saudi Arabia are not demanding stronger cooperation in the military sphere, there are doubts that China could expand its relations with regional actors without expanding its security commitments.
To assess China’s policies in the region, the paper focuses on its relations with Iran, providing historical background about their bilateral relations, and examines the geo-strategic motives behind taking their cooperation to a new level in the late 2000s. Therefore, the paper examines the “strategic partnership” that was announced in 2016, focusing on the main domains that were covering it.
The paper argues that the China-Iran partnership is based on cautious cooperation that capitalizes on Washington’s waning presence in the region, but avoids targeting international and regional actors, including the GCC states and the US. This argument is proved throughout the paper by examining how China tends to boost its relations with Iran, without losing its Saudi/Emirati counterparts, while avoiding as well challenging the American security framework.
During the cold war, international cooperation was reflected in strict and strong alliances, either an American-led alliance system or a Soviet one (Struver, 2017). After the end of the cold war and the fall of the Soviet Union, states sought to rely less on coercive measures and more on new cooperative tools to deal with growing power asymmetries, but with limited commitments.
The concept of strategic partnership has, therefore, evolved to meet new challenges and opportunities at the global level. This new concept has been integrated into the foreign policy of many countries, but China is the most prominent example. Having at least 78 partnerships around the world, the concept has become attributed to Chinese diplomacy from Asia to the Middle East (Li & Ye, 2019).
Great powers like China seek to foster ties with their neighbors through the so-called “goal-driven” alignment, which ensures deeper cooperation and lesser commitments, in comparison to traditional types of alliances (Struver, 2017). In this sense, strategic partnerships are based on flexible conditions and terms, which makes it less costly for state actors to join or leave them.
This new diplomatic toolkit goes hand in hand with Beijing’s policy, which aims to avoid strict security commitments with its counterparts, while expanding political and economic relations, with less attention given to ideological similarities or domestic politics (Struver, 2017).
It is important to note that China’s relations with Iran could be traced back to the Iran-Iraq war. This section divides Sino-Iran relations into three main phases.
The growing relations between China and Iran could be traced back to the Iraq-Iran spat that took place in the 1980s. The war between Baghdad and Tehran presented a golden opportunity for China to play on both sides to achieve its economic goals (Weiskpoff, 1983).
Although China’s rise was not evident at that time, its goals of modernizing after decades of isolation prompted Chinese policymakers to look for “outside” opportunities, given that the post-Maoist era was already focused on accelerating modernization (Hamrah & Eliasen, 2021). This, in turn, prompted Chinese strategists to expand their economic influence over the Middle East, to achieve their modernization goals.
In this sense, Iran seemed a plausible partner. Tehran was under sweeping pressure from the US, economically and politically. Hence, Beijing was able to capitalize on Iran’s isolationism, to achieve its goals. China’s covert strategy towards the war benefited both Baghdad and Tehran. Although China was—and still is—committed to a “cautious approach” towards arms sales in the region, it was able to provide around $5 billion worth of arms to Tehran (Gering & Brodsky, 2022).
Iran was already grappling with its frozen assets and crimpling sanctions that were imposed by Washington, but Beijing provided a lifeline for Tehran amid deteriorated relations with the West. Their economic relations achieved an unprecedented level to the extent that Tehran became a major training partner to China in the MENA region.
It is important to note, however, that their relationship was not expanding to the economic sector only, but to the diplomatic one, too. Diplomatic exchanges between both countries were massively increasing. This was evident in the visit of Hashemi Rafsanjani, the Speaker of the Iranian parliament in the 1980s to China (Scilino,1987). As mentioned, although China provided support for Tehran, it was still playing on both sides, hosting delegations from both countries to end the prolonged war.
Sino-Iran Relations in the 2000s
During the late 1990s to the early 2000s, China’s growing demand for energy, coupled with Tehran’s isolation, paved the way for taking their bilateral relations to another stage. Due to pressures from Washington, Japan, Europe and Russia had to reduce their relations with Tehran (Calabrese, 2020). In this sense, Tehran had to expand its relations with Beijing.
At that time, China was also aware of the centrality of Iran in its Belt and Road Initiative (Mirgholami,2021). Therefore, it expanded its economic influence in the country, sending its companies to Tehran to boost the Iranian capacity when it comes to refining, in addition to investing in central industries and building the Iranian infrastructure (Calabrese, 2020).
The strategic partnership between China and Iran was formulated during the visit of President Xi to Iran in January 2016. The former Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and his Chinese counterpart discussed a plethora of bilateral and multi-lateral matters, including issues related to security concerns in the region. It covered a wide range of policy issues, including strengthening their relationship in the economic, political, cultural, defense and security, and even judicial domains (Official Website of the President of Iran, 2016).
The joint statement includes around 20 articles that set a road map for their bilateral relations. The statement, for instance, includes articles regarding the support which both parties should provide to each other, including respect for sovereignty, independence, and national integrity. On the security level, both sides agreed on the importance of dealing with security concerns like extremism, terrorism, and even secessionism as threats to the global peace, and stability of the country (Official Website of the President of Iran, 2016).
The agreement holds multiple benefits for both sides. On the Iranian side, the agreement recognizes the legitimacy of Iran’s views, policies, and interests in the Middle East (Dudgeon, 2021). Politically, it strengthens the Iranian regime amid sweeping protests against the so-called unjust system in Tehran, which partially grew out of economic frustration.
In 2021, it was estimated that the amount of potential Chinese investment in the country reached around US$400 billion, with about $280 billion in the strategic oil sector in Tehran (Dudgeon, 2021). It is surely an agreement that allows China to deepen its influence in the energy sector, and diversify its partnerships in the region. The partnership also provides China with more leverage against Washington amid soaring bilateral tensions in the region.
Sino-Iranian Cooperation: Maintaining Balance
Despite their growing relations, the China-Iran partnership is not offensive and does not aim to either target or attack any players within the region. During his latest visit to Saudi Arabia, Xi reaffirmed China’s position with regard to ensuring a “peaceful” Iranian program (Haaretz, 2022).
In this sense, China seeks to reassure Saudi Arabia that its relations with Tehran are “special”, but not so special to the extent that it endangers Riyadh’s interests in the region. Pragmatically speaking, China keeps its cautious support for both sides, aiming to ensure that energy supplies are not endangered.
As mentioned earlier, the oil factor remains a major focus for China’s policies in the Middle East and partly explains why China avoids intervening in regional conflicts, especially between Riyadh and Tehran. According to Iran International TV (2022), Iran is exporting up to 750,00 barrels per day amid growing global demand for oil, citing Beijing as the biggest importer of Tehran’s crude oil.
The Russia-Ukraine war and growing global demand for oil prompted China to seize its relations with Russia and Iran to purchase cheap oil amid Europe’s thirst for energy resources. This, in turn, has prompted other major states, including India to expand their imports from Iran and Moscow. Despite America’s attempts to pressure Tehran to halt its exportation to China, Iran remains committed to the Sino-Iranian strategic partnership.
Nonetheless, China’s relations with Iran are still cautious, to avoid losing its Saudi counterpart. Although Saudi Arabia aims to diversify its economy as a part of its 2030 vision, it would be naïve to argue that Riyadh is ready to give up on its investments in traditional oil resources amid growing demand for oil. Likewise, the UAE is heavily investing in traditional oil resources despite its commitment to achieving the so-called “green transition” (Bradstock, 2022).
Regional actors are growing more independent from the US. This, in turn, provides Beijing with the opportunity to expand its imports of oil and diversify its relations with major regional actors, with limited security commitments. Although the Middle East remains a top priority for the American administration, and this was clear in Biden’s latest visit to Jeddah back in July, it would be naïve to say that relations between the West and the Gulf monarchs are not witnessing radical changes (Shuvat & Guzansky, 2022).
It is not only Iran that seeks to expand its relations with China, but also Washington’s old allies: Saudi Arabia and the UAE. This is not to say, however, that the Middle East is turning into a cold war competition between Beijing and Washington. As said before, China does not seek to put an end to the American system in the Middle East. Also, turning the Middle East into a sphere of cold war competition means threatening the movement of oil again, something which Beijing has avoided for so long.
Challenges of the Sino-Iranian Partnership
Despite all the aforementioned implications of their partnership, China and Iran are expected to face a plethora of consequences in the future amid growing international and regional pressures. First, there are doubts about China being able to balance relations with all regional actors in the long term (Marks, 2022).
There are also concerns that regional actors might not pressure China to expand its security commitments, especially amid growing tensions between the Iranian-led and the Saudi-led camps. Riyadh is heavily investing in its military sphere to halt its dependency on the West, and China is one of its top alternatives, at least when it comes to cheaper Chinese arms (Xie, 2022). Nonetheless, Beijing remains committed to its cautious military support to both: Iran and Saudi Arabia.
With regional and international systems changing, it seems that China might be pressured to change its non-alignment strategy amid intensifying regional conflicts. Although China’s neutral strategy has yielded positive results and prevented Beijing from getting indulged in regional conflicts, it’s still unclear whether it will be able to play with both sides without getting involved in their bilateral spat (Marks, 2022).
China’s focus on maintaining cautious relations with Iran without expanding its military commitments is a double-edged sword. While it provides Beijing with the opportunity to keep itself away from military conflicts, it’s still unclear how China is expected to expand its partnerships without expanding its security commitments.
US sanctions are still posing unprecedented challenges to Iran’s economic relations with the outside world. This is not only a challenge confined to China but other states as well. Although states are developing new means through which they could purchase Iranian oil through third parties, America’s pressures on Tehran are still impeding the expansion of Iran’s relations with the outside world. Although President Joe Biden vowed to revive the Iranian nuclear deal, there are doubts that a nuclear agreement will be settled in the near future.
Contrary to the Western-centric literature written on China, Beijing has no intentions to either overturn the global system or challenge the US-security-led system in the MENA region. The oil factor remains a top priority for China in the Middle East, which means that keeping the region as stable as possible has become a priority for the Chinese giant. In this sense, it sought to rely on new cooperative measures that hold little military commitments.
It relies on “strategic partnerships,” a new concept in international relations, to expand its relations with all regional actors, with little security commitments. It has become at the heart of China’s diplomacy from the Indo-Pacific to the MENA region. One of the most important partnerships, especially in the MENA region, is the comprehensive strategic partnership with Iran. This partnership covers a wide range of areas, from political matters to economic and diplomatic ones.
The partnership is a win-win situation for both sides. It provides Tehran with various economic opportunities amid American sanctions. Various estimates show that China remains the biggest purchaser of Iranian crude oil. On the other hand, Beijing’s cooperation with Tehran grants China the opportunity to expand its Belt & Road initiative, given Tehran’s geo-strategic location, while also getting more benefits from the increasing number of oil shipments to Beijing.
China, however, seeks to balance relations with all regional actors, even the two contending camps, through its so-called strategic partnerships that hold limited security commitments. The Ukraine-Russian war has provided all regional powers with the opportunity to expand their exportation of oil resources amid increasing sanctions on Moscow. This, in turn, has prompted China to commit itself, more than any other time, to its non-alignment position with regard to the Saudi-Iran conflict, seeking to balance relations with all in order to maintain the flow of oil.
If China succeeds in keeping the balance amid international and regional challenges, it might be able to act as the mediator between Iran and Saudi Arabia in the future. It all depends on the ability of the Chinese policymakers to keep their commitment towards the non-alignment strategy amid pressures to expand their military ties with regional actors.
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