China’s Strategic Considerations in Bolstering Defense Diplomacy with Iran
Sunday, October 25, 2015
Masoud Rezaei, Ph.D. in International Relations &
Visiting Research Fellow at the the Center for Middle East Strategic Studies
Iran and China signed a memorandum of understanding on military cooperation last week. The draft memorandum was about cooperation between the two countries in such areas as defense, education, technical fields, intelligence, cyber space, and fighting against terrorism. This development is sure to get “defense diplomacy” of Iran and China closer to reality. In the field of defense diplomacy, China ranks the second at global level only after the United States in view of the wide scope of its activities and its possession of necessary tools.
The importance of China’s defense diplomacy toward Iran entered a new phase after 2013 and the election of the new Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. In May 2014, Chang Wanquan, China’s defense minister, announced that his country seeks close military cooperation with Iran. Subsequently, and in September 2014, two Chinese warships docked at the southern Iranian port city of Bandar Abbas for five days and took part in joint military drills with Iran. At present, following the conclusion of Iran's nuclear agreement with the P5+1 group of countries in the Austrian capital, Vienna, and gradual abrogation of multilateral sanctions imposed on Iran, relations between the two countries are blessed with international legitimacy as well.
In terms of conditions in Asia and the region, the two sides of Asia have been gaining a special importance compared to the past. East Asia, topped by China, has turned into one of the most important economic hubs in the world, while West Asia and mostly the Persian Gulf region, has turned into a gravitational center for supplying energy to such emerging powers as the People’s Republic of China. Like other global powers, the Chinese have found out that gaining influence in the Middle East would not be possible at all in the absence of cooperation from Iran. On the other hand, they know that Iran needs China’s weapons and military technology in order to boost its defense capacity in the face of all possible threats, and also to maintain military balance in the region. These Asian links, which have been accompanied with shifts in part of the global wealth, impart increased importance to defense aspect of China’s relations with Iran. However, as a result of the large-scale policies that China pursues at international level, Beijing has so far seen Tehran as just a strategic partner, not a strategic ally. Nonetheless, in parallel with new global developments, this trend may change in the future.
Generally speaking, China and the Middle East are interdependent; however, Beijing considers Tehran’s role in this region as being pivotal. For this reason, China was the biggest customer of Iran's crude oil for a long time until international sanctions imposed on the Islamic Republic in the past four years caused Iran's rank on the list of energy suppliers to China to fall from third to sixth. Despite this situation, why Iran is still playing an important role in China’s regional equations? Regardless of the two sides’ diplomatic positions and remarks, the answer to this question must be sought to a large extent in Iran's geostrategic value as an important center for promoting China’s influence toward the West as a result of which, China sees Iran as an essential factor for countering Washington’s axial role in Asia and the United States’ naval superiority. In fact, China’s constant support for Iran's military program means that officials in Beijing consider the presence of a powerful Iran in the Persian Gulf region as being in line with their interests. Therefore, they hope to use Iran as leverage to mount pressure on the American forces and limit the possible pressure that the West would be able to exert on China in the event of future disputes between China and the United States in the Pacific Ocean and the South China Sea.
Therefore, the potential for the expansion of relations between Iran and China in strategic terms is no less than the potential for developing economic ties between the two countries. Iran is facing various regional challenges and is trying to expand its sphere of influence for which it needs to have foreign allies with good reputation on its side. On the other hand, China needs Iran in line with its large-scale and strategic equations. According to a new document recently published by the United States Naval Institute, China aims to protect security of its interests in other regions of the world and in doing this, it seems only logical for China to get aligned with Iran. Iran is the sole big and powerful country in the region, which is not an ally to the United States and its maritime and land routes are of vital importance to China. So, it is not strange that military officials on both sides have already indicated their willingness to expand their cooperation.
In fact, Iran is at the core of a number of China’s key strategic interests. As a result, energy and trade are not the sole available grounds for cooperation between the two countries. Beijing is actively following up on the famous “One Belt, One Road” initiative, which includes the Maritime Silk Road as well as the Silk Road Economic Belt of the 21st century. The goal of the initiative is to turn into a major force which will set the direction for continued economic growth of China. This initiative is, to some extent, related to the axial role of Iran. That is, promoting strong defense relations with Iran is also of geostrategic importance to China, because Iran is located on one of the two land bridges that connect China to the West and, for this reason, is of high geostrategic value and importance to Beijing. The second land bridge crosses from the margin of the northern coast of the Caspian Sea on the side of Kazakhstan toward southwestern part of Russia in Caucasus. However, Iran is the more important route out of these two existing land routes because it connects China both to Europe and the Persian Gulf.
The Chinese are smart enough to know that bolstering their defense diplomacy with Iran, in view of the sensitivities of Iran's Leader and his distrust toward development of Iran's relations with the West, will guarantee protection of their interests along this geostrategic axis. Therefore, importance of the Islamic Republic of Iran for China, in view of this continental leverage, goes far beyond its domestic market or even its role as a source for supplying energy to China. As a result, if the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, which has been signed by Iran and the West, ends in the removal of international sanctions imposed on the Islamic Republic, in that case, China would undoubtedly boost its cooperation with Iran in defense and strategic fields. The nuclear agreement can also pave the way for full membership of Iran in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and this is why one could assert that among other countries, China is the main winner of this agreement. Therefore, in the near future and after an interregnum of 13 years, we can witness an official visit by the Chinese president to Iran, during which the two countries will certainly conclude a host of agreements in various fields.
Key Words: China, Iran, Strategic Considerations, Defense Diplomacy, Memorandum of Understanding, Military Cooperation, Hassan Rouhani Chang Wanquan, West Asia, Persian Gulf, Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, Rezaei
More By Masoud Rezaei:
*Ayatollah Khamenei’s Military and Strategic Thinking: http://www.iranreview.org/content/Documents/Ayatollah-Khamenei-s-Military-and-Strategic-Thinking.htm
*Iran's Nuclear Deal and Transition to a “Newer Middle East”: http://www.iranreview.org/content/Documents/Iran-s-Nuclear-Deal-and-Transition-to-a-Newer-Middle-East-.htm
*Iran-US Regional Relations Subsequent to Nuclear Agreement: http://www.iranreview.org/content/Documents/Iran-US-Regional-Relations-Subsequent-to-Nuclear-Agreement.htm
*Photo Credit: Defapress.ir