Debate Magazine

Attention to China on the Iran Crisis

Posted on the 16 March 2012 by Shahalexander

In a previous post, I argued that China’s westward expansion to Central Asia and the Middle East is no less dangerous than its eastward expansion to the Asian sea lane. Particularly, China’s ties with Iran and Pakistan are critical to global security, because Beijing’s assistance in nuclear and missile technology to both countries has inflicted negative impacts on nonproliferation. Also, I warned that a premature US withdrawal from the Middle East, including Iraq and Afghanistan, would provoke Chinese penetration in this region. Therefore, I questioned whether China acts for global public interest or geopolitical rivalry against the West. However, as the tension over the Iran nuclear crisis is growing increasingly strained since the IAEA report last November, Sino-Iranian relations stand at the crossroads now. This is a vital test whether Western and Asian democracies can really found a peaceful and win-win relation with China.
After the fall of the shah regime, Iran has been a keystone in China’s Middle East policy. China exported Silkworm surface to ship missile secretly to Iran despite strong concerns over the safety of the Hormuz Strait (“U.S. Knew of Iran Arms, Officials Say”; New York Times; June 16, 1987), until the Reagan administration demanded to stop it (“China Says It Will Stop Arms for Iran”; New York Times; November 4, 1987). In addition to providing military assistance to Iran for many years, senior officials of the Chinese military have been exploring to build a naval outpost there to dominate the sea lane east of Suez. Will China really abandon such a long term ambition for the sake of peace and security in the Middle East?
Quite interestingly, China and Iran emerge as two major ideological and strategic adversaries to the West. Let me review an article by a Manila based foreign policy analyst Javad Heydarian, to explore the Sino-Iranian relationship over the nuclear crisis (“China and Iran Breaking up?”; Diplomat Magazine; March 8, 2012). He points out a historical analogy between both countries, that is, “The Persian Empire and Imperial China served as the two pillars of power at the far ends of the Asian continent.” In terms of the economy, China and Iran are mutually complementary. Iran is a key supplier of oil and natural gas for China to satisfy its growing economy. As the West adopts tougher sanctions, Iran is becoming increasingly dependent on the Chinese market. However, he comments that China needs a Strait of Hormuz safe to import oil from the Gulf. Therefore, he says that China opposes Iran’s military action in the area, and demands transparency of suspected sites for international verification.
The problem is Heydarian’s analysis is rather optimistic. Does China act so willingly to explore joint security initiatives with the West? Nonproliferation may be a vital security agenda for both China and the West. However, China perceives the threat of a nuclear Iran less serious than the West, which makes it difficult to pursue a win-win relation between both sides. China can get along with a nuclear Iran, because both of them share common ideological and geopolitical standpoints to rival against the West. Also, their “understandings of history” overlap each other. In case of Iraq, China fiercely opposed to the Anglo-American intervention for fear of a unipolar world order rather than removing the threats of Saddam Hussein’s nuclear ambition and potential links between autocrats and terrorists. China can give priority to power politics against the West over global public interest.
Previously, I criticized Yoichi Masuzoe, Leader of the New Renaissance Party, for his lenient view on China. But I strongly agree with him that we must not allow China to expand business chance in Iran, while Japan tightens sanctions along with Western allies including Israel. I mentioned him bitterly just because we are not in a position to “solicit” their cooperation to manage the Iran crisis. Such an attitude reminds me of a kowtow, and I would reject it firmly as George Macartney and William Amherst did. We must watch this deeply embedded and unpredictable relationship between China and Iran vigilantly to manage this nuclear crisis.

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