The China-Iran pact is a game changer — Part I

Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif (R) and China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi (L) exchange documents during the signing ceremony of a 25-year cooperation agreement, Tehran, March 27, 2021.

Part I : China neutralises the US campaign on Muslim Uighur issue 

When China and Iran, two of the United States’ main adversaries in the contemporary world situation, enter into a 25-year strategic pact, it is pointless to split hairs and speculate whether the development affects American strategies. Of course, it does. The West Asian region is all about geopolitics — starting from oil and jihad to petrodollar. 

The region served as the crossroads of empires for centuries between Europe and Asia. And in modern history, foreign intruders conflated new poignant realities — failed states, humiliated peoples, crippled economies, extreme inequality and poverty, devastated environments, plundered resources, conflicted geographies, and violent radicalism. 

The historic China-Iran agreement signed on March 27 in Tehran during the visit of China’s State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi has been under negotiation since the 2016 visit by Chinese President Xi Jinping to Tehran. Numerous visits by Iranian Foreign Minister Javed Zarif to China in the recent years testified to the high importance Tehran attached to the negotiations culminating in the formal signing ceremony in Tehran Saturday, which also marked the 50th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between these two “civilisation states” of the 21st century that enjoyed vast historical continuity and cultural unity across a large geographic region through millennia.  

The text of the agreed document has not yet been put on public domain but broadly, we can glean from the joint statement issued on March 27 that the agreement reached during Xi’s visit to increase bilateral trade to $600 billion in the next decade has been acted upon. In fact, the joint statement begins by invoking Xi’s visit. Two supplementary documents signed by the two countries pertain to the “MOU on Jointly Promoting the Silk Road Economic Belt and the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road” and the “MOU on Reinforcement of Industrial and Mineral Capacities and Investment”, whereby both sides “shall expand cooperation and mutual investments in various areas including transportation, railway, ports, energy, industry, commerce and services.”

The joint statement says that given their relative economic advantages, both sides shall enhance their cooperation in  the field of energy. Iran will supply oil and gas to China while the Chinese side “shall consider financing and investing in the up-and-downstream projects of the energy industries” in Iran. Again, wide-ranging economic cooperation is envisaged covering investment and trade exchanges, banking, financing, mining, transportation, communications, space, manufacturing industries, development of ports, upgrade and expansion of Iran’s railway networks, introduction of express railway systems in Iran, agriculture, water resources, protection of environment, food security, fighting desertification, water desalination, use of nuclear energy, etc. A bilateral “MOU on Strengthening of Investment Cooperation” is devoted to this aspect and the exchange of knowhow and technology.

Yet, the scope of the pact by far transcends trade and investment. A commentator in the Chinese state media noted, “As it stands, this deal will totally upend the prevailing geopolitical landscape in the West Asian region that has for so long been subject to US hegemony.” The joint statement states that the Comprehensive Strategic Partnership signifies “a major agreement in all areas of bilateral relations and regional and international issues.” It adds, “Currently the regional and international situation is experiencing deep and complex developments. Under such circumstances, the two sides emphasise the importance of cooperation between the developing countries on international affairs and are committed to joint efforts towards realisation of peace, stability and development in the region and the world at large.”  

Interestingly, the joint statement highlights that “China attaches importance to Iran’s effective role as the regional power and evaluates positively Iran’s role in activities under the framework of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and supports Iran’s application for full membership of the Organization.” Of course, it is a way of telling the world that China does not accept the isolation of Iran from the world community. Conceivably, China and Russia are on the same page here.

The US has contributed significantly in providing a raison d’être for such a pact. Neither China nor Iran is expecting any goodwill from the US. They perceive that the adversarial mindset in America is only hardening under President Joe Biden’s watch. As for Tehran, it no longer pins hope that Biden will revive the JCPOA or lift sanctions anytime soon. Thus, without doubt, pushing back against the US unilateralism and sanctions is a leitmotif of the China-Iran strategic partnership. 

China’s interest lies in “broad-basing” this leitmotif to embrace its relationships with the regional states as a whole. Wang’s regional tour covered Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Iran, UAE and Oman. The fact that he travelled to Iran via Saudi Arabia is both symbolic and of substantive importance. At his meeting in Riyadh on March 24 with the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Wang said China supports Saudi Arabia in safeguarding its sovereignty, national dignity, security and stability, and opposes interference in Saudi Arabia’s internal affairs under any pretext. Prince Mohammed affirmed in response that the rise of China is conducive to global peace, stability and prosperity, as well as a more balanced global development. 

The Crown Prince expressed the hope that the two countries will boost anti-terrorism and security cooperation to uplift the bilateral ties to a higher level. Importantly, the Crown Prince said Saudi Arabia ‘firmly supports China’s legitimate position on the issues related to Xinjiang and Hong Kong, opposes interfering in China’s internal affairs under any pretext, and rejects the attempt by certain parties to sow dissension between China and the Islamic world.’ 

Plainly put, Saudi Arabia has undercut the current US campaign against China regarding Xinjiang. It is a snub to the Biden administration. In fact, Wang’s regional tour testifies to the ground reality that there are no takers for the US’ diatribes against China. The regional states sense that the US is being driven by seething rivalry over a rising China poised to overtake it in a near future as the world’s number one superpower. They refuse to take sides in the rivalry.

The salience lies here: China has introduced, after careful assessment of the power dynamic in West Asia, certain common principles that are equally applicable across the region to provide the basis for its relationships with the regional countries. The unspoken objective is to encourage the regional states to shift to independent foreign policies, shaking off the western yoke, especially US hegemony. But China’s method of doing this is radically different from the coercive and often violent tactics that western powers traditionally adopted in the region.

China has absolutely no interest in using coercion as an instrument of “persuasion” even with Turkey which has a vocal Uighur diaspora (who held a demonstration during Wang’s visit.) At the meeting with Wang, President Recep Erdogan underscored Turkey’s deep interest in “boosting mutual trust, promoting the synergy between China’s Belt and Road Initiative and Turkey’s “Middle Corridor” plan, enhancing cooperation in the fields including interconnection and intercommunication, infrastructure construction and investment, seeking more balanced development of bilateral trade, and encouraging local currency settlementChina instead is offering equal relationships.”

Erdogan also voiced Turkey’s appreciation for China’s five-point initiative for achieving the security and stability in the Middle East and its willingness to deepen communication and coordination with China on regional affairs. Fundamentally, China’s projection of a constructive agenda to develop “win-win” engagement with the regional states is gaining traction.