Implications of Chinese Involvement in the US Maritime Alliance Against Iran

ByDr Mona Abdulfatah

The Chinese perspective towards Iran is influenced by its overall international interests, and specifically in the Middle East. Since its participation in the Bandung Conference in 1956, China is still upholding in its foreign policy; the ‘Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence.’ They are as follow:

  • Mutual respect for other countries’ territorial integrity and sovereignty.
  • Mutual non-aggression.
  • Mutual non-interference in other countries’ internal affairs.
  • Equality and cooperation for mutual benefit.
  • Peaceful co-existence.

Having formally incorporated these principles into its constitution, they have served Chinese economic interests for a long time. The rearrangement of the international balance of power and Iran’s attempts to attract strategic allies serves not only Iranian ambitions but also Chinese eagerness for being a pivotal state in the Eastern hemisphere.
However, the Chinese ambitions is affected Beijing’s position and ties with regional countries especially that with Iran amid volatility in international relations and the magnitude of their  Iranian and Chinese influence. In its quest for alliances in East Asia, Iran moved towards China due to its need to counter Western international isolation amid its apparent disputes with its neighbors. China has won Iranian trust as an alternative to other East Asian rivals because Iran showed resistance to US pressures in a region where other countries even count on the United States to contain China as an emerging power that seeks to extend its influence.
The previously mentioned description of China’s ties with other regional countries matches its foreign policy principles that have resulted in strong relations with oil and gas producing countries, even those included on the US sanctions list, such as Iran and Sudan. Iran has made great efforts with countries that have mutual historical and strategic dimensions. However, despiteits instability, the China-Iran relationship conflicts with the United States in terms of viewpoints on various issues.
The Iranian movement towards deeper relations with China was initiated upon the guidance of the Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, who declared in February 2019, “In foreign policy, top priorities for us, today, include preferring the East to the West.” It is noteworthy that this directive contradicts the most robust slogan of the Iranian revolution of Khomeini in 1979, “Neither East nor West,” which meant no trade-off between the capitalist United States or the communist Soviet Union. Although Khomeini did not specifically mean China, its ideology represented a barrier against bilateral relations. But later, China’s formation of ‘Socialism with Chinese Characteristics,’ and the demise of socialism itself due to the difference between China and the Soviet Union eased the ideological burdens. This also strengthened the ruling party by enabling it to focus on economic development. The ruling party in China is dominated by the Han ethnicity which makes up 92 percent of the Chinese population which also consists of 56 other ethnic groups. The Han Chinese have ruled China for about 400 years. Iran does not focus on Chinese communism, despite its ideological opposition. Iran, with its Islamic background, seeks to emphasize, albeit in a hidden manner, that its relationship with China rests on an alternative oriental globalization that could challenge Western globalization.
Khamenei’s statement may be more conservative than what the former leader of the People’s Republic of China Deng Xiaoping stated at the end of the 1970s, “It does not matter if a cat is black or white, so long as it catches mice.” Khamenei might converge with Xiaoping in one aspect of pragmatism, which Iran has adopted in terms of giving up its ideology, which is contrary to socialism in general including ‘Socialism with Chinese Characteristics.’
The Chinese economy has long played an integral role in the Iranian economy, to the point that China has become Iran’s second-largest trading partner after the United Arab Emirates. Over the past decade, Chinese companies have invested more than $5 billion in improving Iran’s oil and gas refining infrastructure and other development projects. The volume of mutual trade has grown tremendously, from $1.6 billion in the 1980s to $15 billion in 2007, and to about $45 billion between 2014-2015, and then to about $33.39 billion in 2018.
However, because of bids between the United States, China, and Russia, the Iranian economy has managed to survive, relatively speaking. Although sanctions have affected the Iranian economy significantly, it has not collapsed; the US sanctions could shatter the Iranian economy altogether if it were not for China’s occasional recovery policy. On the other hand, China cannot ignore its economic interests with the United States, where the volume of mutual trade reached $600 billion, nearly $500 billion of which is Chinese exports to the United States.
Although China has strategic interests with Iran, it always re-evaluates its priorities according to profit-and-loss calculations, thus it would implicitly circumvent the US sanctions to an extent without jeopardizing its trade relations with Washington. The United States can use its influence on China to stop cooperating with Iran; whether through imposing sanctions on Chinese companies or raising intellectual property issues, but it is persuading China to reduce its cooperation with Iran, and nothing more. Months after China defied US sanctions on Iranian oil imports; China plans to join the maritime security alliance in response to the US proposal to escort warships with Chinese oil tankers and merchant ships in the Arabian Gulf.
In addition to trade interests, the United States looks at the open loophole in the South China Sea, which forces it to cooperate with Beijing, lest pressure on it leads to tensions in the Chinese-controlled straits. That explains why China is not responding quickly, as well as the safe-side policy of Chinese diplomacy during international crises, where it cares more about domestic affairs, especially economic development. China feels uncomfortable when interfering in international affairs. Chinese diplomacy is crucial only when it comes to China’s direct national interests, such as those relating to autonomous regions such as Tibet, Xinjiang, and Taiwan, human rights in China, or maritime territorial disputes in the surrounding territorial waters.
As for Chinese-Iranian military cooperation, China has been the leading supplier of arms to Iran since 1986, China’s supply of weapons includes HY-2 anti-ship missiles. China also played an active role in Iran’s ballistic missile program by providing Tehran with the necessary technologies and designs. Also, the two parties signed a military cooperation agreement on November 14, 2016, pledging “closer military and counter-terrorism cooperation.”
China-Iran cooperation included military grants, Chinese arms sales, training and assistance in the establishment of weapons production plants. The cooperation is ambiguous and opaque about the military effort itself. However, Chinese-Iranian military cooperation, including the export of arms and military equipment is purely commercial. Chinese arms and equipment deals are often part of corresponding deals with other countries, under which China provides arms in exchange for oil or raw materials, and in a few cases cash.
China’s military participation in the US maritime alliance in the Arabian Gulf can be an opportunity for China to provide support through multinational security forces for oil tankers, but China may go no further than demonstrating its vast military power, and that is because:
First: the Chinese strategy focuses on the guiding principle of ‘Active Defense,’ a concept that stems from the military-strategic thinking of the Communist Party of China, inherited from the Chinese military thinker Sun Tzu and his book ‘The Art of War’ since the 5th century BC. Sun Tzu’s principles are implemented in a dynamic and ongoing manner. The concept means to “adhere to the unity of strategic defense and, operational and tactical attack. Moreover, commitment to the principles of defense, self-defense, and post-emptive strike. Also, China will not attack unless it is attacked, but it will certainly launch a counter-attack if attacked.”
Second: since the establishment of the republic, China has focused on investing in the Chinese Liberation Army to defend its vast territory. Even its contribution in many UN peacekeeping missions in various conflict zones has not affected the enormous number of Chinese armed forces, which reaches 2,035,000 soldiers, making it the most significant military force in the world in terms of numerical power. Although Chinese military power is less developed than Western powers, it has acquired most Western technologies through circumventing intellectual property laws. China now has military satellites, refueling planes, aircraft carriers, nuclear, and strategic submarines that can challenge any sovereign risk underwater. In addition to building the Blue Navy as a modern force capable of defending regional demands and conducting global operations; this will be a challenge for the US Navy, according to Chinese officials.
Third: although a well-armed Iran will serve the Chinese goal of preventing US control over a geographically and strategically crucial region, it also diverts US attention from the Pacific. However, China’s entry into war will affect Chinese interests directly, especially when 44 percent of China’s oil imports come from Saudi Arabia, its largest supplier after Russia. This will be detrimental to the Chinese energy-starved economy. Despite its enormous military power, China will continue to focus on developing its economy, taking advantage of the US role as a global police officer.
Fourth: China’s participation in a long war in the Gulf will pose a severe threat to Chinese future economic plans in the region. China has invested in the Arabian Gulf and Iran to serve its vision and its enormous economic project, The Belt and Road Initiative. China’s investment in transportation and infrastructure in Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Kuwait, and Iran amounted to $13.6 billion between 2013 and 2019, according to China’s Global Investment Tracker.
Therefore, China-Iran relations align within their economic, political, and military frameworks. The Chinese economic structure greatly restricts its strategic choices, forcing it to balance between its trade relations with the United States and its conformity with the international standards of the market economy, which itself is closely related to ‘the political structure or the global distribution of political powers.’ The military dimension is the least important one in its international participation, and if military assistance is offered, it will be within particular calculations that put the Chinese military doctrine and its interests at the forefront.

Opinions in this article reflect the writer’s point of view, not necessarily the view of Rasanah

Dr Mona Abdulfatah
Dr Mona Abdulfatah
Editor and writer on international relations and political affairs at Rasanah IIIS