China is now on the threshold of a new phase of geopolitical and strategic transformation and it has put into place new rules for its dealings with other major powers. It has also affirmed its presence on the regional and international stage, especially in the Middle East which includes the entire Arab region and Iran, from China's perspective.
China's strategy in the ‘Middle East’
China has tended to use the term ‘West Asia and North Africa’ as an alternative to the term ‘Middle East’ in its definition of the region. In accordance with this geographical division it has a structure of involved, partisan, governmental establishments to manage its relations with the many states in the region. It is known that the Chinese generally - including some party and government officials - do not differentiate much between nationalities, people, small minorities and sects in the Middle East. Usually many of them confuse Islam (as a religion) and Arabism (as an identity or nationalism). They consider Iran an Arab state and its differences with its regional neighbours are, as a whole, differences with religious roots.
Despite the deeply-rooted historical relations that date back centuries, the Middle East was never as central to China’s foreign policy strategy as it is today. Similarly, the countries of the region for their part did not consider China to be a global player that could be relied upon. China's role remained limited and marginal, confined to trade and cultural exchanges. Beijing did not seek to establish a physical or political presence in the region similar to other international forces.
China has always looked at the Middle East in terms of its resources and strategic location, yet as a region entangled in a raging and sustained conflict between competing international forces and their respective spheres of influence in the region.
After the founding of the People's Republic of China in 1949, China's interest in the Middle East focused on the search for legitimacy and diplomatic recognition in a region where the majority of countries recognised the legitimacy of Taiwan. For this reason China's diplomacy at the beginning concentrated on attempting to enter the region by supporting the national liberation movements and to prevent the overwhelming hegemony of foreign forces in the region. Chinese conduct has continued to be based on the ‘Five Principles of Peaceful Co-existence’, launched by its late leader Chuan Lai. Beijing remained committed to the belief that ‘the problems of the Middle East must be resolved by the people of the region and not by any foreign interference.’
The understanding of Chinese national security has not, until recently, included protection of its political or economic interests outside of China. For many decades, since the founding of the Republic, it abided by a deep-rooted belief which was limited to protecting its borders. China calls this the theory of the ‘Great Wall of China’, a metaphor to indicate that China has remained confined within its borders and had withdrawn from playing any vital role outside its walls. But with recent developments it seems that China has begun to expand its definition of the concept of national security, taking into account the rapid growth of its economy and the expansion of the terrain of Chinese interests abroad. Another development is the emergence of energy security - which guarantees that the wheel of the Chinese economy keeps spinning - as one of the most important aspects of national security. It appears that China's interest in the Middle East will be greater than it has been in the past but without its active involvement in the political issues of the region, taking into account the foundations that govern its foreign policy. Its interest is based on the fact that the Middle East is the most important source of energy in the world just as it is one of the most important consumer markets. It is now possible to say that, from the standpoint of the Chinese, the balance of trade exchange with any country is the only measure of the level of relations required. Economic relations dominated most of China's movements and its diplomatic conduct in the Middle East thus far, affirmed by the priorities of the country's decision-makers.
Whenever Beijing was compelled under stressful regional and international pressure to define a clear position, it did do so either through prudent steps or through a combination of concern and confusion. China has on many occasions invited concerned parties in a crisis to engage in dialogue and negotiation without going into any details or presenting any initiatives itself. The region - according to China’s vision – was filled with religious and ethnic contradictions and was a dangerous centre of international conflict and competition. Any engagement with this region was fraught with challenges which necessitated many political, military, security, economic, cultural and media resources that Beijing did not have and even if Beijing possessed some of them it would not have known how to employ them skilfully enough in the context.
China and America: Partners
As mentioned earlier, China did not, at any point in time, attempt to compete with the major players in the region. It recognised the limitations of its role and evaded the issue. Yes, it tried at different periods to block the influence of some of the international powers in the region. Interestingly, it was more robust in preventing Soviet influence than in resisting American influence. That was at the height of revolutionary fervour until China began weaving relations with more regimes hostile to communism and closer to Washington. It had distinct relations with the regime of the Shah of Iran, Numeiri in Sudan, Siad Barre in Somalia and with North Yemen in its confrontation with South Yemen which was aligned to the Soviets. China’s relations extended as far as Sadat, the national hero who liberated Egypt from foreign influence when he decided to expel the Soviets and open up to Washington.
Here one must point out an important observation that is sometimes overlooked: there is a lack of significant difference between the USA and China's vision regarding regional issues in the Middle East. China was and still remains on Washington’s side in its war on so-called terrorism. It did not strongly oppose the US occupation of Iraq and immediately acknowledged its findings and subsequent outcomes. China also contributed to a great extent to reconstruction projects in Iraq.
In the Arab-Israeli conflict China believes that negotiation is the only solution that will result in a settlement that will satisfy all the parties concerned. China refused to sign the document that regarded Jerusalem as the capital of a Palestinian state during the Sino-Arab Cooperation Conference in Tianjin in 2010. This was considered an abdication of its previous positions. It also refused to recognise the Hamas government after it had won the elections and was quick to contribute by sending troops to the Gulf of Aden to combat piracy. China’s position on the Iranian nuclear issue is compatible in principle with that of Washington, which wants to prevent Tehran from acquiring nuclear weapons. Beijing recently responded - relatively obediently - to American pressure by reducing its dependence on Iranian oil and increasing its imports from the Gulf.
In short, Beijing's policy toward the Middle East in the past has been directed at cooperating with Washington and avoiding a clash or competition. Indeed many of its positions did not go beyond this tactical framework nor did they fall within China’s broader strategic framework.
Chinese concern for Washington
Subsequently, China directly sought to increase and prolong American involvement in the Middle East as much as possible to gain more time to build its own capacities and spheres of influence away from the ‘vexing Americans and their interference in its internal affairs.’
However, President Obama's decision to withdraw from Iraq and the announcement of his new strategy to shift focus to the Asia-Pacific region as one of the top priorities of US foreign policy has aroused deep apprehension in Beijing. This has upset China’s calculations and imposed on it the need to review its strategies and to adapt its strategic vision, which partly involves its partner on the international stage, Moscow.
This comes at a time when there is an increasing and unprecedented stranglehold on Beijing within its own region. China's relations with most of its neighbouring countries are at their worst in decades. This includes relations with Japan, Vietnam, the Philippines, India, Australia, South Korea and Thailand and even with traditional allies like Burma. This is aside from the abrupt departure of the North Korean leader, Kim Jong Il. Furthermore, tension has returned to areas like the disputed islands in the South East China Sea in light of calls for the creation of an international mechanism to resolve the issue of the disputed Spratly Islands. This is not to mention the security and social stability challenges China faces domestically where there has been an increase in the number of demonstrations and protests. During the last year more than a 100 000 cases have been recorded, the latest being the bloody events in the town of Wu Kang in the Guangdong province in south China. The protests were against the lack of social justice, rampant corruption, unemployment and the widening gap between rich and poor, in addition to ethnic tensions in several regions like Tibet and Xinjiang (East Turkistan).
All these issues constitute real challenges for China at a critical and delicate juncture. China is on the threshold of transferring power to a new generation whose leadership is characterised by intense conflict between the centres of power and influence within the ruling party. This will continue until it is resolved at the General Conference of the Party in October. All these reasons combined have resulted in pressure on Beijing essentially with its back against the wall. They have imposed on Beijing the search for new horizons, as well as made it line-up alongside the major powers, share common concerns and agree on tactics even if these differed with its own strategy. This probably explains China aligning itself to Moscow in the Security Council regarding Moscow’s geopolitical and strategic importance with respect to the Syrian issue, in the hope that Moscow will return the favour and stand with Beijing equally on issues that enjoy geopolitical and strategic importance for China. These issues are urgent and inevitable, and perhaps will materialise in the near future.
Iran's strategy in China
The written history on Sino-Iranian (Persian) relations goes back about 2 500 years and specifically to the second century BC. These relations continued to grow within the commercial and cultural framework through two paths – the silk route and at sea. The relations between these two Asian cultural powers did not witness any military confrontation throughout their history and are considered to be among the most established, stable and consistent relations. Similarly they have neither influenced nor have they been affected by each other’s intellectual or cultural influence, possibly due to the strong nationalism that each country displays, in addition to the natural geographical distance between them.
With the establishment of the People’s Republic of China, the country maintained good relations with the Shah's regime. Beijing was preparing to welcome him on his historic visit to inaugurate the massive Persian-style embassy, especially constructed to coincide with the Shah's visit had it not been for the Khomeini revolution (1979) that toppled his regime and cancelled the visit. It is worth mentioning that China at the time took a position which seemed closer to the Shah and was opposed to the revolution which it considered to be ‘disturbances and acts of sabotage driven by black external hands’. This position is similar to a large extent to the positions of present-day China towards the revolutions of the Arab Spring. However, as soon as possible, Beijing moved beyond its negative attitude and resumed good relations with the revolutionary regime. This it did in spite of the ideological and doctrinal differences between the two sides and, interestingly, China is trying to repeat the same scenario with the new regimes that have emerged and continue to emerge from the current Arab revolutions.
In any case, Tehran, which adopted the slogan ‘neither East nor West’ (East being the first option and West being the second option), found it necessary to open-up to China, an opportunity the latter optimised. In return, Beijing chose to open its doors to the nascent Iranian revolution although it (Beijing) was in opposition to the hegemony of the two superpowers at the time (the Soviet Union and the United States) with respect to the areas of engagement and influence between them. One of these areas was the Middle East which, according to China’s vision, was the most prominent. These ties strengthened the bond between the two sides on the basis of the considerable similarity of their psychological, formative and shared circumstances. Both countries work with intense secrecy, absolute confidentiality, unlimited patience (both manufacture carpets, miniatures, intricate handicrafts); both do not have confidence in their environment, have a permanent sense of being targeted and plotted against by others and have a strong sense of nationalism. They are independently products of two radical revolutions and have a high degree of sensitivity to the West, resulting from decades of occupation, sanctions, blockades and interference in their internal affairs. In addition, they have a tendency to revive their ‘glorious’ past.
With the outbreak of the Iraq-Iran war, relations between Beijing and Tehran quickly witnessed accelerated growth and China formed an important and essential source of arms for Tehran in its war with Baghdad which lasted eight years. Arms sales are considered to be an important element in the relations between them. It has been estimated that the arms deal with China and its ally, North Korea, at the end of the 1980s constituted about 70 per cent of Iran’s needs. This led to Saddam Hussein ending diplomatic ties with Pyongyang. At the same time Beijing tried - through its official declared position on the war - to appear, as usual, to sit on the fence and equally distant from the sides involved in the conflict. It demanded both the sides to stop the war and to settle their disputes through dialogue and negotiation. China also announced its opposition to any intervention by the major international powers and to the expansion of the conflict which threatened the security and stability of the Gulf region.
At the end of the 1980s and the beginning of 1990s, Iraq succumbed under years of international embargo and wars in the Gulf region. During that period and its concomitant circumstances imposed by shared interest, the suffering of both China and Iran from political isolation and international sanctions constituted a golden opportunity for the unprecedented development and prosperity of relations between them. This was accompanied by the significant entry of Chinese companies into Iran to participate in the reconstruction required after much of the infrastructure had been destroyed by the war. Likewise in rebuilding and developing its military industries.
At that time Beijing was subject to international political isolation and to European and American sanctions in the aftermath of the events of Tiananmen Square in 1989. Up until that time Beijing had not established diplomatic relations with most of the Gulf States. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia was the last Gulf country that recognised China and established diplomatic relations with it in 1990. Until then, oil was not yet a priority and of great importance in China's international relations.
Nuclear cooperation formed a new element - among other elements - of cooperation between the two sides in the 1990s and Beijing was considered Tehran's main nuclear partner in 1997. But, very quickly Beijing abandoned Tehran because of American pressure. Iran's cooperation moved to Pyongyang, under the watchful eyes of China. But Beijing remained committed to defending Iran's nuclear program at the Security Council and with international organisations as long as Tehran confirmed the programme’s peaceful purpose and that it (Tehran) would remain bound by the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Beijing succeeded several times to prevent the referral of the matter to the Security Council and to keep it within the framework of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), without having to use its veto.
With the growing geo-strategic importance of Central Asian states Moscow and Beijing sought to establish the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, and very soon, in 2005, Iran became an observer member. However, sanctions imposed on Tehran prevented its accession to full membership, in accordance with the constitution of the organisation. In all cases, China sees the growth in the role and influence of Iran in the Middle East and Central Asia as a useful intersection for its security, economic and geo-political agenda.
With escalating international pressure on Iran, economic sanctions – particularly against Iran's Central Bank – began to make an impact. The Iranian currency has lost a large percentage of its value. The suffering of the Chinese companies has increased because of the inclusion of some of them in those sanctions and other companies that have been forced to freeze their projects or to withdraw. Likewise China has been forced to reduce its imports of Iranian oil by approximately 290 000 thousand barrels per day – during last January alone. The Chinese and Iranian sides have entered into a dispute over oil pricing and how to pay the huge past bills.
Iranian statements about closing the Strait of Hormuz have stirred Chinese panic. This caused Beijing to swiftly send its deputy foreign minister to Tehran to warn it against taking such a step.
China’s vision and current shifts
The shifts in the international scene and the increasing intensity of the competition between world powers, on the one hand, and the complexity of their relationships and their intricacies, on the other, demand consideration. Similarly, in light of international, regional and internal challenges facing China, the wait for a new Chinese leadership, the great changes that the revolutions of the Arab Spring produced in the region, the position of China regarding the emergence of political Islam as an important force and the resulting growing concern in Beijing (which has been expressed by most of the Chinese media), all these factors will still not likely lead to radical and essential changes in China's policy towards the region and its issues. But China will certainly need to reformulate its political discourse so that its position becomes clearer. Sometimes Beijing may be forced to step out of the ‘grey area’ depending on current developments. The time when Beijing used to measure its positions and its understanding of the overall issues of the region under the umbrella of the Egyptian position, or the position of what used to be called the ‘countries of moderation’, has changed or is in the process of changing.
Energy security with respect to sources and supply routes will remain the main driver of China's policy toward the region, and therefore it cannot completely abandon Iran's oil and put all its eggs in the basket of the Gulf States. This is mainly because it has discerned that the Gulf States will most likely succumb to American demands when circumstances warrant it. Likewise China cannot rely completely on Russian oil even if it succeeded to extend the pipelines between the two sides - and also for strategic reasons.
China may seek to strengthen its presence in oil productive sectors in different parts of the world depending on their competitive prices and acceptable conditions, which ought to be better than that of Western companies. It is also expected that China will continue to strive for more of a military presence by increasing its participating forces in peacekeeping operations or in combating piracy. At the same time it will seek to establish military bases to protect its oil supplies. It has already started negotiations with Pakistan and with the Seychelles* while at a same time developing its marine capabilities and building an aircraft carrier.
As far as Iran is concerned, it is expected that China will attempt to apply continuous pressure on Tehran to show greater flexibility in its cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). It will also engage in further coordination and rapprochement with Moscow to prevent the occurrence of a catastrophic war, or to delay its occurrence and limit it if it should happen.
Perhaps a comparison of Beijing’s relationship with Tehran to its relationship with Islamabad will clearly reveal in a substantial way Iran's position in China's strategic vision. Relations between China and Iran did not reach the degree of an alliance or even to the point where they can be considered as a ‘spring in all seasons’, as Sino–Pakistan relations have been described. That is an objective issue imposed by many reasons, including the fact that China's diplomacy continues to reject the principle of alliances in its international relations except in the case of relations that are considered "above normal" with some countries, which relations are dictated by geographical, historical and strategic necessities such as the relationship with North Korea, and similarly but to a lesser extent with Pakistan. In addition, Iran has no common border with China, as is the case with Pakistan.
Iran is also in a confrontation with the United States, the international community and its region, while Pakistan is in a confrontation with India, China’s traditional rival. Likewise each of these two countries have different neighbouring regions; India’s neighbours look to China as a regional balance while Iran's neighbours are the Arab countries. This aspect is not contained in the calculations of the Arab countries in that they do not see in Iran a regional balancing power because they have strong relations with Washington.
Therefore, China's relationship with Iran will remain, regardless of how close they become, merely a bargaining chip and will not become in any way a strategic relationship at least in the foreseeable future. As for China's relationship with the region as a whole, in spite of the growing importance of the region with respect to China, it will not accept any threat to its relationship with major powers.
* ‘Izzat Shahrour is a specialist in Chinese affairs and is the director of Al Jazeera's bureau in Beijing.