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Iran and China Moving toward Expanded Cooperation?

Saturday, May 31, 2014

Mohsen Shariatinia

Relations between Iran and China are as old as history. The two countries, as cradles of the world’s most ancient human civilizations, have been interacting in various fields for thousands of years. During this long period of time, cooperation has been the dominant model governing the relations between Iran and China. The Silk Road stands as the symbol of cooperation and interaction between the two countries during past centuries. Under present circumstances and in continuation of the aforesaid historical model, relations between the two countries are based on cooperation in various political, security, economic and cultural fields.

The logic that rules political, security and defense cooperation between Iran and China has its roots in common interests as well as foreign policy goals pursued by the two countries. On the other hand, as two developing countries with complementary economies, Iran and China are able to address various needs of each other and this situation has further expanded the area of common interests that can cement relations between the two countries. In addition, Iran and China enjoy a great number of commonalities in terms of values and norms that are acceptable in their societies. The existence of such commonalities has provided many potential grounds for cooperation between the Islamic Republic and China in political, security and economic fields.

In international political sphere, Iran and China both reject the existing unipolar world order, which is currently governing international relations because both countries consider it unjust and against their national interests. Of course, the method used by each country to oppose this order is different. Therefore, existence of a certain degree of overlap between the two countries’ large-scale viewpoints about international relations can be considered as the most important aspect of their relations, which can create new capacities for further promotion of political collaboration between Tehran and Beijing.

Another factor, which can serve to create political capacities in the two countries’ relations, is related to both countries’ effort to protect their national sovereignty against a Westphalian interpretation of sovereignty as they both are opposed to foreign interference in other countries’ domestic affairs. Iran and China hold common views in opposing the West’s intervention in other countries’ internal affairs, violation of other countries’ sovereignty by the West, forceful regime change in various countries and the Western states’ effort to introduce new international procedures in a bid to further limit sovereign rights of other countries. This situation has also provided a fertile ground for political cooperation and consultations between the Islamic Republic and China.

As for security matters, it should be noted that under the present conditions, there are important common elements in the security environment of both countries and this issue can provide good potential for further collaboration between Tehran and Beijing in this regard. Persian Gulf region is the most important spheres of Iran’s security environment. On the other hand, since China has been increasing its energy imports from this region, Persian Gulf has turned into a major component of China’s security environment as well. Therefore, stability and security of this region is of high importance to both countries.

Central Asia and Afghanistan are other places where security concerns of the two countries overlap. It goes without saying that countries located in this region are all suffering from some sort of fragility in their political and power structures. On the other hand, any form of instability and crisis in every one of those countries can have a direct impact on the national interests of Iran and China. In this regard, the future outlook for Afghanistan is the most critical issue for Iran. Maintaining stability in Afghanistan after 2014 (when foreign forces are scheduled to leave this country), would hinge on close cooperation among all regional players, especially neighboring countries of Afghanistan. Iran and China, as two important neighbors of Afghanistan, both play a role and have common interests in increasing stability of this country and strengthening its government. This common interest can also provide a common ground for their cooperation.

The two countries also enjoy vast capacities for cooperation in the economic field. Iran is one of the most important countries with abundant energy resources while China, on the other hand, is one of the biggest consumers of energy. China is thus a consumer country whose demand for energy is increasing at a rate that is much higher than the global average rate. Therefore, the field of energy can still serve to provide vast capacities for the expansion of the two countries’ relations. In addition and under the present circumstances, Iran can meet a large part of its economic needs through China and can also send the lion’s share of its exported goods to that country.

However, in spite of the fact that there are great capacities for the expansion of cooperation between Iran and China, sensitivities caused by the third parties have created serious obstacles in the way of development of bilateral ties. The United States and Israel have played a totally destructive role in their effort to undermine relations between Iran and China. Sanctions imposed on the Islamic Republic by the United States have greatly slowed down long-term cooperation between Iran and China in the field of energy. They have also worked to reduce the pace of foreign investment in Iran and have caused many problems for all kinds of bank transactions between Iran and China.

In the new era which has started with the inauguration of President Hassan Rouhani’s administration, the interim agreement reached in [the Swiss city of] Geneva over Iran’s nuclear energy program as well as Rouhani’s effort to present a different image of Iran to the world have temporarily reduced the strength of the destructive part that the United States has been playing to torpedo relations between Tehran and Beijing. Therefore, one may claim that further expansion of relations between Iran and China will greatly depend on the final fate of the Geneva agreement. Early steps for development of the two countries’ relations, however, have been taken through direct talks between the two countries’ presidents on the sidelines of the recent meeting of the member states of Shanghai Cooperation Organization in [Kyrgyzstan’s capital city of] Bishkek. The two sides also achieved new agreements recently in the course of the Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures in Asia (CICA), which was held in the Chinese port city of Shanghai. If the interim Geneva agreement ends in the conclusion of a comprehensive deal over Iran’s nuclear energy program and Iran’s international image is offered away from false security concerns, then relations between the Islamic Republic and China will most probably start to expand at an accelerated rate. However, if negotiations over Iran’s nuclear energy program fail to bear fruit and relations between Tehran and the West become turbulent once again, then, expansion of cooperation between Iran and China will also become more difficult and face new complexities.

*Mohsen Shariatinia is assistant professor of International Relations and a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute for Trade Studies and Research. He is the author of Iran-China Relations: An Introduction (2007) and Developmentalist Foreign Policy: Chinese Experience (2008), both published by the Center for Strategic Research - CSR, in Persian.

Key Words: Iran, China, Expanded Cooperation, Political, Security and Defense Cooperation, CICA, Shanghai Cooperation Organization, Geneva Agreement, Shariatinia

More By Mohsen Sahriatinia:

*Geneva Agreement and Iran's Strategic Power: http://www.iranreview.org/content/Documents/Geneva-Agreement-and-Iran-s-Strategic-Power.htm

*Is Iran Unpredictable?: http://www.iranreview.org/content/Documents/Is-Iran-Unpredictable-.htm

*Iran–China–US Triangle: http://www.iranreview.org/content/Documents/Iran%E2%80%93China%E2%80%93US_Triangle.htm

*Photo Credit: Press TV

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