China and Outlook of Nuclear Talks: Interests and Expectations

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Saeed Mohammadian; International Relations Expert

Bilateral relations between Iran and China have been marked with many commonalities and mutual interests. As a result, the political leaders of both countries have been putting regular emphasis on the need to boost bilateral relations to a new level of strategic cooperation. However, there are many questions and even ambiguities in this regard in the public opinion of the Iranian nation. Can the existing relations between the two countries be considered strategic in view of the role played and positions taken by the Chinese government on Iran's nuclear issue? Is China merely looking to Iran as a vast consumer market for its products and is taking opportunistic advantage of international conditions against Iran? Can we actually expect the future relations between Iran and China to be extended into the area of strategic cooperation?

During the past half a century, relations between Iran and China have been influenced by changes in Iran's domestic environment and have shifted from pessimistic rivalry and cooperation (due to the dependence of Iran's former monarchial system on the West) to a state of positive cooperation. During past years, both countries have adopted a model of increasing and strategic cooperation, thus delineating an outlook for extensive partnership. As a result, many expectations exist in each country regarding how the other country should behave within the framework of bilateral relations.

In order to take bilateral relations to a higher level, both countries need to take tangible measures and send accurate and timely signals. In Iran, political observers, scientific elite, and the public opinion have been raising questions about relations between Iran and China during recent years. Assessing those relations from a critical perspective, they have come to the conclusion that the expansion of relations between the two countries has been mostly beneficial to China. As a result, they have maintained that expecting more commitment from China in its relations with Iran would be unrealistic. This issue has been especially true about Iran's nuclear standoff with the West and has drawn more attention when analyzing the way China has been dealing with Iran's nuclear issue. As a result, it seems that Beijing’s approach to this issue has generally fallen short of meeting the expectations of Iran's public opinion.

China is considered as a big power in international system and is also a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, which has recognized the policy of nonproliferation of nuclear weapons. At the same time, it is known as an independent and emerging power, which has been critical of certain norms and values that govern the international system. When it comes to China’s relations with the United States and Europe, Beijing has been following a model of combined cooperation and rivalry. Although China is opposed to other countries building nuclear weapons, it seems that at the same time, it is also rightfully suspicious of the Western countries’ claims which allege that Iran's civilian nuclear energy program may have diverted toward production of nuclear weapons. Therefore, when it comes to the West’s unilateral sanctions against Iran, China has been mostly ignoring them or paid less attention to them. A highlight of China’s approach to Iran was clear during the official trip to Beijing by the Iranian President Hassan Rouhani when his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, described his country’s relations with Iran as “strategic relations.” The Chinese president also lauded the policies adopted by President Rouhani's administration in the area of foreign policy and once again underlined China’s support for Iran in its effort to develop peaceful nuclear technology.

In Iran, however, those who are critical of the current relations with China and development of those relations argued that such remarks were not adequate and China should take more practical steps in this regard. Of course, such a criticism can be a normal feature of nascent relations or may be the sign of the readiness on the part of both countries to take their relations to a whole new level. At present, Iran is playing an important role in assuring energy security of China by supplying 12 percent of the crude oil that the Far East nation consumes a year. On the other hand, figures show that by the end of 2014, the volume of trade between Iran and its number one trade partner, China, will hit 50 billion dollars. So, the question that is currently being posed by most analysts in Iran is “what quid pro quo has China considered for the huge benefit that it reaps through relations with Iran?” Have political measures taken by China with regard to Iran been proportionate to the commitment that the country’s leaders are expected to show toward Iran? Some analysts maintain that under present circumstances, the least that is expected from China as quid pro quo for its beneficial relations with Iran is for Beijing to lend its active support to Tehran throughout the Islamic Republic’s nuclear talks with the P5+1 group of countries.

The political critics of the two countries’ relations have also come up with a lot of questions and pointed to a host of ambiguities. They maintain that the continuation of the current standoff over Iran's nuclear energy program and the persistence of the existing complexities and problems in the Middle East will prompt the United States to pay more attention on this region and will, therefore, reduce pressure on China in Eastern Asia. As a result, the way will be paved for the continuation of the economic growth of China as well as its political hegemony over countries in East Asia. This situation will also prevent the United States from putting into gear its new strategy of creating renewed balance with China, and implementing its turn to the east policy, which have been cause of great concern in Beijing. Under these circumstances, it is quite natural for the Chinese leaders not to be willing to see a speedy resolution to Iran's nuclear case.

Apart from these problems, Iranian officials, like their Chinese counterparts, have defined the two countries’ relations within the framework of a bigger pattern. As a result, they have been talking about high importance and priority of relations with China as well as the two countries’ complementary power and role in regional and global developments. Of course, “expectation” from Beijing to play a more pronounced role in Iran's nuclear talks has been always on the table as a major demand from Iranian side. When receiving the credentials of the new Chinese ambassador to Tehran, President Rouhani reminded him of the background of longstanding cooperation between the two countries during all the years that have passed since the victory of the Islamic Revolution in Iran. He said both at the time that Iran was invaded by the former Iraqi regime and now that it is under international and unilateral sanctions, China has always taken useful measures which have been very effective for Iran and Tehran will never forget those friendly relations. The Iranian president added that Iran and China have been also cooperating in the field of peaceful nuclear technology since many years ago and called for more efforts by China in Iran's talks with the P5+1 group in order to help the two sides to achieve a final and comprehensive agreement before a deadline set for this purpose.

The proactive diplomacy that the new Iranian administration has adopted since its outset along with the effective role that Iran plays in the establishment of broad-based security in the Middle East (especially in Iraq and Syria) are major factors which may have prompted the Chinese leaders to reach the conclusion that their country’s relations with Iran should be promoted from a merely “cooperation” level to a higher “strategic” level. Other factors that are influential in this regard include the critical position of Iran in the region for assuring secure energy supply to Chinese economy, the positive role that Iran is playing in restoring security to Afghanistan, as a country which is neighboring both Iran and China, as well as great opportunities that exist in Iran for China to engage in economic activities and major investment projects. However, to achieve the goal of promoting the two countries relations, they need to provide suitable political grounds. In this way, they would be able to take their expectations beyond the existing conditions and convince the critics of those relations and pessimistic analysts that the two sides enjoy necessary capacities to turn into strategic partners for each other. To achieve this goal, they need enough motivation and true resolve while necessary steps should be also taken on time. If the questions that currently exist about bilateral relations and mutual expectations of Iran and China remain unanswered, then pressures from critics and public opinion may affect available grounds for cooperation and have untoward effects on efforts made to delineate a framework for future relations.

China has appointed the head of its nuclear expert team in negotiations with Iran as its new ambassador to Tehran. Perhaps this development would be a good omen that China is bent on playing a more pronounced role in nuclear talks. It may be also a sign that Beijing is willing to address the expectations of the Iranian leaders as well as criticism and questions posed by the public opinion in Iran by appearing more proactive and constructive in those talks in order to help all involved parties to achieve a comprehensive agreement on Iran's nuclear case.

Key Words: China, Iran, Nuclear Talks, Interests, Expectations, Bilateral Relations, Hassan Rouhani, Xi Jinping, P5+1 Group of Countries, Oil, Mohammadian

Source: Shargh Daily
Translated By: Iran Review.Org

*Link For Further Reading: American Hegemony (and Hubris), the Iranian Nuclear Issue, and the Future of Sino-Iranian Relations

*Photo Credit: xinhuanet

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