Iran – China relations: conducive factors and constraining factors

Iran-China bilateral relations, established in 1971, have experienced a quite substantial change in the post-1979 period, especially since the end of the Cold War. Both countries, despite fundamental differences in ideology and governance structure, and based on a number of areas of commonality, most prominently similar international outlook as developing states of the South, and based on mutual need in economic fields, most notably energy, and also in the military field, chose to expand their relations in various areas.

Overview of Past Relations

Iran and China two of the most ancient countries in the world, also two old empires which have been neighbors in the past, enjoy a long tradition of bilateral relations of millennia. The relationship between Iran and China, quite close, and even special at various periods in the distant past, is best symbolized by the famous “Silk Road.” The two countries – societies with rich, old civilizations and glorious past have also enjoyed close cultural relations since antiquity and have influenced each other in different ways. That close relationship suffered drastically in more recent centuries as a result of the general decay in their power and marginalized status in world affairs emanating 19 centuries, among others from their exposure in 18 and 19 centuries to colonialist rule and influence – albeit to different degrees. 

Iran-China relations during the twentieth century can be divided into three distinct periods. During the first period, spanning 1949 through the early 1970s, the relations were defined by the Cold War parameters; Iran under Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, an ally of the “anti-Communist” western bloc, recognized Taiwan as the representative of the Chinese people. During this period of escalating tensions, Chinese officials considered Iran as a reactionary state and “mercenary of imperialism” and Iranians looked at China as an expansionist, aggressive, and subversive Communist state. The second period started in the early 1970s as a result of the perceptible change in the relations between China and the U.S The Sino-American rapprochement an outcome of the proverbial “Ping pong” diplomacy also paved the way for a similar thaw in Iran- China relations. The official visit to Beijing of Ashraf Pahlavi, Shah’s influential twin sister, in April 1971, which was extensively denounced at the time in revolutionary and leftist quarters, in Iran and elsewhere, should indeed be considered as the critical turning point in the bilateral relations between the two capitals. Following the visit the two countries established formal diplomatic-political relations and took steps towards mutual confidence-building and cooperation. The state visit by China’s Communist Party Chairman Hua Kuo-feng to Iran in late August 1978, amidst revolutionary upheaval in the country, was welcomed by the beleaguered Shah but roundly condemned by the opposition as an act of treason by the so-called anti-imperialist Chinese. The event, however, left its negative impact on the state of relations after the emergence of the revolutionary regime in Iran a few months later.

The third period in relations belongs to the post-1979 years, which coincided with the establishment of the Islamic Republic in Iran and the beginning of the post-Mao transformation in China. Concurrence of fundamental developments in both countries, respectively, drove them towards forging a relationship that was essentially different from the previous two periods – albeit gradually and after a rather short period of cool relations. The victory of the Islamic Revolution in Iran ushered a fundamental shift in Iran’s foreign policy; ending the pre-revolutionary pro-West policy, Iran adopted a revolutionary outlook in its foreign policy based on what came to be known as the “Neither East Nor West” motto. The new outlook, while taking distance from Western and pro-Western countries, favored expanding relations with revolutionary, nonaligned, and Third World countries. Simultaneously, China was also experiencing significant changes in its foreign policy outlook within the framework of a much bigger transformation that was taking shape in the ruling party’s platform and grand strategy – as already reflected in the decisions of the third session of the 11th Congress of the Chinese Communist Party in December 1978. In designing an overall pro-development approach, as of the early 1980s, China started taking distance from the previous decidedly revolutionary Communist – Maoist – agenda and opted for a substantially changed new approach. The new Chinese foreign policy outlook involved, inter alia, less emphasis on the so-called anti-imperialist posture and concurrent warming up of relations with the U.S. – castigated systematically since 1949 as the “leader of the capitalist bloc.” 

Another important factor affecting the state of bilateral relations between Iran and China came from the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War. This development did in fact substantially change the security environment for both Iran and China, and hence, their foreign policy priorities. Continued tension between Tehran and Washington and the perpetuation – even at times exacerbation – of the U.S. threat against Iran’s national security and interests in the post-Cold War unipolar world, and development of China’s relations with the U.S. within the overall context of strategic cooperation and competition have in fact affected IranChina relations in a peculiar two-way manner. They have acted as both conducive and constraining factors, leading inevitably to mutually-agreed priority for certain areas; e.g., trade and economic, and energy cooperation, as compared with a more constrained political cooperation best reflected in the case of Iran’s nuclear dossier. 

Conducive Factors

1 Similarity in Foreign Policy Outlook

. Looking at the macro-level changes in the international order in recent decades, one could argue that both Iran and China can be considered, in a sense, as “revisionist” actors in the political arena. As defined in the theories of international relations, revisionist states fall within the following three broad categories:  

  1. Revolutionary Revisionist States: These states reject the ideational foundations of basic institutions in the international system. They are committed to bringing down the existing order and transforming the system in its entirety,
  2. Orthodox Revisionist States: These states are [generally] satisfied with the institutional structure and ideational content of the international system. Nevertheless, they are unhappy with the existing state of affairs in international relations and reject the current ranking and status of countries in actual power politics; and
  3. Reformist Revisionist States: These states accept some of the institutions of the dominant international order – based on their own institutional orientations and instrumental calculations – but reject some of the existing institutions and endeavor to reform/improve them. These states are essentially geared to enhancing their own position in the existing order. 

2 . Cooperation in the Field of Energy 

China’s sustained, rapid economic growth during the past two decades has, among others, significantly increased demand for energy sources, particularly crude oil, which has, in turn, led to increasing reliance on imported oil. While China was the fifth oil producer in the world in 1993, it has turned into a major crude importer since. According to recent forecasts, China will have to import more than 40 percent of its needed annual crude oil by 2012 (Fang, 2008). The ever-increasing reliance on foreign imported oil to maintain the pace of economic growth that is considered essential for the long-term development of the national economy, and more importantly, the survival of the existing governance structure, has in fact turned the question of “energy security” into a critical issue for the Chinese government. China’s acute awareness of its strategic vulnerability in the field of energy especially in light of the possible U.S. pressure and manipulation, including due to the U.S. practical control over the entire route of energy supply from the Middle East to the South China Sea, has forced Beijing as a countermeasure to establish and nurture close relations with oil-exporting countries in the Persian Gulf area. As argued by China watchers, “energy security” constitutes the most important element of China’s interest in the Persian Gulf region.

Iran on her part is well situated for the following specific reasons – to meet on a long-term basis part of China’s substantial demand for crude oil.

Iran holds the second-largest proven reserves of oil and gas in the world; 

Full Iranian control of the management of energy sources as compared with other oil producers in the region, especially Saudi Arabia, thus lessening of the potential danger of influence and manipulation by the United States, as a  strategic rival of China; and Practical absence of Western companies from the Iranian energy scene, due, inter alia, to economic sanctions imposed by the U.S. 

and complied with by other Western countries, has in fact provided the Chinese companies with a unique opportunity for engagement.  It could be argued, therefore, that the respective geopolitical situation of both Iran and China, as well as their particular needs, capabilities, and constraints, have encouraged them to seek closer collaboration in the field of energy. Considering China’s expected rising demand for energy and also considering the continuation of Iran’s political difficulties with the Western world the U.S. in particular – for the foreseeable future, it can be reasonably expected that Iran – China liaison in this field will continue to remain an important item in their bilateral relations.

  1. Economic Interactions

The volume of trade between Iran and China has increased significantly in recent years. In fact, it has multiplied since the early 1990s. While In 1994 the volume of trade stood at around 450 million dollars, it rose to 2.3 billion dollars in 2001 and to 30 billion dollars in 2010 – as announced.

This rapid growth of trade and economic relations has been attributed to two factors. The first factor is China’s sustained and substantial economic growth, turning a predominantly agrarian self-contained economy into a fast-developing industrial powerhouse in a relatively short period – dubbed by some as the “factory of the world” and a major trading partner of many countries in the world, both developed and developing. The second factor relates to the Iranian side of the equation, involving both economic and political factors. The persistence of political difficulties between Iran and the West in general and the U.S. in particular since 1979, and more so since 2003 because of the nuclear issue, has in effect limited Iran’s choices for economic cooperation. The imposition of a wide range of sanctions on Iran, both by the U.S. since the early 1980s and by the UN Security Council since 2006, which have expanded the range and depth of sanctions have made the situation all the more difficult for Iran, especially given the continuous rise in demand for a wide range of consumer goods in the Iranian economy. Given this, it is little wonder that Iran has turned to an enthusiastic China to meet such substantial demand in an expanding oil-funded market. 

Chinese government’s policy towards Iran. Despite seemingly very close political relations between the two capitals, the Iranian public opinion appears to increasingly believe that China is quite opportunistic in its treatment of Iran and is bent on taking advantage of Iran’s peculiar situation in the international arena. This impression has been further intensified in light of China’s support for the Security Council resolutions (since 2006) against Iran. 

  1. Military Interactions 

As already indicated, Iran’s military interactions with China started in the early 1980s during the war with Iraq. It is interesting to note that China sold military hardware to both sides, which amounted to a total of almost 5 billion dollars between 1980 and 1988 (Carter and Ehteshami, 2004). The military liaison between Iran and China has increased since the end of the War. According to the statistics published recently by the Stockholm Institute for International Peace Studies (SIPRI), between 2005 and 2009 Iran has been the second importer of military hardware from China after Pakistan (Swaine, 2010). The growing cooperation between the two countries in the military field, as an important variable in the bilateral relations, can be explained by the following two factors. Firstly, as in the economic and trade fields, and particularly more so in the military field, Iran has faced serious constraints in meeting the requirements for its arms industries and the military sector. And secondly, given Iran’s location in a sensitive geostrategic area and the consequent precarious and even volatile security environment, Iran has felt the need to bolster and upgrade – to the extent possible – its military, defense capabilities. The recent and still unfolding revolution in the military field – which has, inter alia, tipped the military balance in the region to Iran’s detriment – has also contributed to further exacerbate the situation for Iran. This picture and the available options for countries willing to engage in military cooperation under the circumstances – can explain the expanding relations and ever-closer cooperation between Iran and China in recent years, which, it should be added, carries a number of technical as well as political constraints for Iran. The expanding liaison also has a number of immediate economic and long-term political-strategic advantages for China, and also the inevitable disadvantage of causing a certain degree of Western-American dissatisfaction.

  1. Constraining Factors 
  2. Requirements and Implications of China’s Strategic Choice  As indicated earlier, the Sino-American rapprochement in the early 1970s helped Communist China to leave behind a long period of isolation and full-fledged confrontation with the capitalist bloc. Further developments later in the decade, as best reflected in the decisions of the Chinese Communist Party Congress in 1978, pointed in the direction of substantial change in China’s grand strategy, which involved the adoption of an overall pro-development approach. Under the new strategy, implemented as of the early 1980s, China started taking distance from the previous decidedly revolutionary Communist  Maoist – agenda, including a new foreign policy outlook that involved, inter alia, less emphasis on the so-called anti-imperialist posture and concurrent warming up of relations with the U.S. It is to be noted that the outcome of such a change in overall strategy – with its central emphasis on economic development and progress – helped China towards gradual emergence as a major power in international politics, including at the United Nations and more specifically as a permanent member of the Security Council. This rather dramatic change in China’s status and role created, quite understandably, heated debates about its impact on and implications for the existing international order at various levels across the globe, especially in policy-making circles in various countries, especially in the United States. The emergence of the specter of the so-called China Threat in the Western world could indeed be seen as a direct outcome of this change, which in turn led to China’s efforts towards depicting itself as a responsible and accountable member of the international community – both in theory and in practice.
  3. The Relationship between China and Western Powers 

China’s rapid economic growth and development have led to the expansion of economic and technological relations with major developed countries in a position to provide the capital and advanced technology badly needed by China. The same countries – inclusive mainly of the U. S., European Union, and Japan – also happen to be the major markets for Chinese goods and products.

the two sets of factors involved; conducive factors and constraining factors, so far as the former discussed that Iran and China can cooperate and help each other in quite a number of important fields and areas; or it could even be said that they need each other in these fields and areas. Therefore, it is quite natural for both of them to turn to each other and try to strengthen and expand their relations to the extent possible.

By Sanjida Jannat

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