Iran: the China Connection


With the world focused on the crisis in Ukraine, a joint exercise in the Indian Ocean involving the navies of Iran, China and Russia passed largely un-noticed last week. The exercise, dubbed ‘2022 Marine Security Belt’ was the third of its kind.  It focused on tactical cooperation between the forces. 

Largely overlooked, this naval drill on the high seas signposted processes of potentially no less geo-strategic import for the world than the 127,000 Russian troops currently waiting on the borders of Ukraine.   The drill was a demonstration of China’s growing naval reach. It was also an indication of a slowly crystallizing strategic alliance of countries committed to a fundamental re-shaping of the global order. 

In the Middle East, the relevant component of this gradually emergent bloc is the China-Iran connection.  It’s a developing concern. 

On March 27, 2021, Beijing and Teheran signed a 25 year strategic agreement, intended to lead to $400 billion of Chinese investment in the Iranian economy. But of greater immediate practical import, China is the chief enabler of Iranian defiance of US sanctions, through its purchase of Iranian oil.  China imported 260,312 tonnes of Iranian crude oil in December, according to official Chinese figures. 

Unofficially, the level of Chinese import of Iranian oil remains steady at about 500,000 barrels a day.  This constant flow is a kind of insurance policy for Teheran. 

It has already had considerable consequence.  These imports were the crucial factor in enabling the Iranians to ride out the worst days of the Trump Administration’s ‘maximum pressure’ strategy. 

Confidence in China’s continued support undoubtedly lies behind the uncompromising stances currently held by Iran in the nuclear negotiations in Vienna.  China’s stance ensures that the west cannot realistically threaten Teheran with economic collapse in the event of defiance.  This is a powerful booster enabling the continuation of  Teheran’s regional strategy of subversion in Yemen, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and the Palestinian territories.  If the talks in Vienna fail, it will similarly have been a significant contributory factor. 

Military cooperation, however, is the key element of concern to US allies in the Mid-East.  In a recent article for INSS, Israel’s premier national security think tank, Brigadier General (Res) Assaf Orion described the situation in the following terms: ‘The strategic agreement between China and Iran, to the extent that the draft reflects the final version, outlines a zone of agreement on cooperation in intelligence, cyberwarfare, precision navigation systems, weapons research and development, and military training and instruction.’

The former general called the prospect of the further advance of this trend ‘alarming’ for Israel.

The picture here is not simple.  China has not sought to develop its relations with Iran at the direct expense of other regional connections.  Its preference, rather, has been to ignore the divides, secure that its size and heft ensure its capacity to do this. 

So alongside the strategic partnership with Iran, Beijing has flourishing relations with Iran’s regional enemies and adversaries. 

Saudi Arabia remains Beijing’s main Mid-Eastern supplier of energy. China is Israel’s third biggest trading partner, behind the US and the EU.  UAE-China relations are also deep and extensive. Abu Dhabi and Beijing in 2019 signed $3.4 billion worth of deals directly related to China’s signature Belt and Road Initiative. The Red Sea, the Suez Canal and the Mediterranean are vital nodes on the  ‘Maritime Silk Road’, a series of trade routes intended to run from China’s south coast to Europe. 

A new terminal at Israel’s Haifa port, operated by Shanghai International Port Group, opened in September, 2021. 

So currently, there’s an odd situation in which even as Beijing lines up closer to Iran, Iran’s regional enemies seek to develop closer relations with China. 

Why is this happening?  It’s happening largely because of a credibility deficit.  US allies, even the closest and strongest among them,  believe less and less in the possibility of a strong, US-led architecture sufficient to ensure against shared enemies.  So they are seeking to ‘hedge’ their bets with the new emerging power. 

There is a corresponding greater reluctance to pay heed to US concerns re China in the region, because there is a growing sense that a reciprocal commitment will not be forthcoming as a result.  Regional events going back to the failure to back allied regimes in Egypt and Tunisia during the ‘Arab Spring’, and up to and including the recent withdrawal from Afghanistan have contributed to this effect. 

Unfortunately, the inexorable logic of emergent cold war is likely to continue to push Beijing further toward Teheran, the courtship dances of regional US allies notwithstanding.

What might serve to reverse this, and make up the credibility deficit?  It’s easy to think of immediate policy stances that could contribute.  Clear support for the ongoing UAE/Saudi effort to resist the Iran-backed Houthis in Yemen, and a return of the Houthis to the list of designated terror organizations, as a response to last week’s drone and missile attack on Dubai and Abu Dhabi would be positive steps. 

But the broader point here is the importance of recognizing that Cold Wars like the emergent one between the US and China will find their way to all global strategic arenas.  The notion of challenging China in the Indo-Pacific while ignoring its ambitions elsewhere won’t work.  The upshot of any such attempt will be to cede vital arenas to the adversary.  ‘Operation 2022 Maritime Security Belt’ in the Indian Ocean isn’t the only security belt that Beijing is offering Teheran. As of now, the China connection is enabling Iran to maintain its defiance on all relevant fronts.   

About jonathanspyer

Jonathan Spyer is a Middle East analyst, author and journalist specializing in the areas of Israel, Syria and broader issues of regional strategy. He is the director of the Middle East Center for Reporting and analysis (MECRA), a research fellow at the Jerusalem Institute for strategy and Security (JISS) and a Fellow at the Middle East Forum.
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