Asia Time Online - Daily News  
Asia Times Chinese
AT Chinese

    Middle East
     Apr 6, 2007
Close, but not too close

China and Iran by John Garver

Reviewed by Sreeram Chaulia

Should the much-prophesied US military attack on Iran take place, what would China do? Would it buckle under as in the cases of Serbia or Iraq, or would there be a firmer response this time? Sinologist John Garver's new book China and Iran offers some clues, and their essence is that Beijing may not stand in the way if Washington plans an invasion of Iran.

Despite the duo's salience in world energy and nuclear politics, negligible research exists on ties between China, the rising global power, and Iran, the strongest state of the Persian Gulf. Garver fills this void by analyzing the full breadth of this intriguing relationship that has withstood historical fluctuations.

Civilizational solidarity constitutes the spirit of Sino-Iranian relations. Shared emotional hurt at how these rich and proud kingdoms were humiliated and stripped of their high status by Western powers in the modern era runs through official discourse of the two countries. Diverse Chinese and Iranian leaders have held that the existing world order dominated by the West is profoundly unjust and must be replaced.

From Mao Zedong to Deng Xiaoping, and from the shahs to the ayatollahs, a joint drive to restore national greatness has motivated bilateral ties. Sino-Iranian diplomatic narratives contend that their two-millennia-old natural friendship was "interrupted by imperialist sabotage and disruption" and that the need is to "unite and oppose hegemonism" (p 16).

Pragmatically, each country recognizes that the other possesses supreme power capabilities in its respective region. China assessed Iran as valuable for blocking Soviet "expansionism" in the 1970s and US unipolarity in the 1990s with its ability to deny superpower control over Persian Gulf oil. Iran hopes Chinese power will be adequate to check, or at least resist, future US aggression.

Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi's opening to Beijing in 1969 was intended to counter Moscow's closeness to Iran's arch-rival Iraq. He also imagined that forging links with "Red China" would demonstrate domestically that Iran had some independence from the US. Simultaneously, Mao accorded Iran prominence in his "United Front" against Soviet "social imperialism".

Beijing's overtures to Iran also sought to limit India's regional status and prevent further unraveling of Pakistan after its breakup in 1971. Pakistan, in fact, facilitated rapprochement and normalization of relations between China and Iran in the form of a convenient venue for talks.

Beijing committed a diplomatic blunder by endorsing the shah to the very end of his regime. It produced bitterness among the Islamic revolutionary forces that took over Iran in 1979. Calculations of expediency slowly brought the country's new theocratic rulers and China's post-Mao leaders back together.

The ayatollahs were delighted that China's Muslim minorities had religious freedom and succeeded in gaining Chinese military assistance in their war against Iraq. Worries of Soviet encirclement worsened in Beijing in the 1980s, and Iran was as attractive as earlier to break it. The political climate had changed, but "the utility of an 'all-weather' partnership based on national capabilities was constant" (p 63).

In 1982, China moved away from alignment with the United States toward an "independent foreign-policy line". This substantially enlarged the areas of commonality between Beijing and Tehran. However, there were limits to how far China could go in supporting Iran against the US. Beijing had broadly cooperative and non-confrontational ties with Washington that could not be jeopardized. In 1987, Beijing insisted that Tehran not deploy Chinese-supplied Silkworm missiles against US-escorted Gulf commerce. It was a "frank but friendly disagreement couched as divergent perspectives among Third World brothers" (p 94).

By 1989, China was crucial to Iran's postwar reconstruction and Tehran's most influential and trusted friend. Western criticism and sanctions against China after the Tiananmen Square massacre forged even warmer Sino-Iranian cooperation for promoting multipolarity. The two condemned US president George H W Bush's "New World Order" and opposed foreign military intervention to undo Iraq's invasion of Kuwait.

Yet Iran was a card that had to be played very carefully against Washington, as a strong US backlash could undermine China's post-1978 economic development. When Tehran invited Beijing to a "militant struggle" against the US and Israel, the Chinese parried and offered substantive benefits in other areas.

Deteriorating US-China relations over Taiwan and human rights caused Beijing's partial disengagement from Tehran in 1997. Tarnishing of China's international respectability and image weighed on policymakers in Beijing while considering association with Iran. A much more sober assessment of China's commitment ensued in Iran.

Exchanges resumed after a hiatus in 1999 and regained their anti-hegemonic tone with the advent of the George W Bush administration in the US. Beijing disapproved of Iran's inclusion in the "axis of evil", but cautiously avoided terming its relationship with Tehran "strategic". Garver remarks that for China, "The costs of open military links with Iran are greater than for links with Pakistan. China might go to war to uphold Pakistan, but not for Iran" (p 127).

Iran's propensity to dabble in the affairs of China's Muslim communities, especially in restive Xinjiang, was an additional factor dissuading excessive closeness. Notwithstanding Chinese warnings, Iranian diplomatic missions and Islamic foundations tried recruiting several dozen Chinese Muslims for study in Qom, and these suspicious activities were closely monitored by Chinese intelligence.

From 1985 to 1997, China was Iran's main nuclear partner, transferring designs, equipment and fissile material. The domestic clout of China's nuclear industry as well as a strategic bid to divert the US away from East Asia prompted the clandestine nuclear collaboration with Iran. In 1997, the US nudged China away from nuclear commerce with Iran in return for civilian nuclear cooperation between Washington and Beijing. Interestingly, "while capitulating to US demands regarding Iran, Beijing rejected similar demands regarding Pakistan" (p 155).

In 2004, China refused to accommodate Iran's request to use its veto in the United Nations Security Council to deter US-sponsored anti-Tehran resolutions. In 2006 and 2007, China voted in favor of sanctions on Iran at the UN. Garver notes that "Beijing was willing to support Pakistan's nuclear challenge to India, but not Iran's nuclear challenge to the US. Pakistan plays a geopolitical role in Chinese strategy not played by Iran" (p 233).

Chinese military aid to Iran in advanced conventional weapons has been consistent, offsetting the loss of political capital suffered by termination of nuclear deals in 1997. Beijing is today Tehran's third-largest military supplier, with a niche in ballistic missiles and naval-warfare weaponry. From the mid-1990s, China also developed Iran's dual-use chemical facilities as "a practical demonstration to the Americans that they did not rule the world" (p 193).

Beijing tenaciously rebutted US efforts to restrict this arms trade because it was being paid for in Iranian oil, and since "a militarily strong Iran served China's interests by constraining the US" (p 198). China did not join the Missile Technology Control Regime until 2003, as membership would cut short the arms trade with Iran. Beijing "gives up no more than is absolutely necessary and always finds alternative ways of being useful to Tehran" (p 233).

Sino-Iranian entente gives Beijing leverage with Washington over Taiwan. "If the US does not like China's relations with Iran, it will have to pay heftily to end that cooperation" (p 200). For several years, Chinese representatives have reasserted the Iran-Taiwan linkage as a bargaining chip with Washington.

Growing Chinese worries about energy security in the 1990s are crucial in maintaining strong ties with Iran. By 2001, Tehran was Beijing's largest supplier of crude oil. In the event of a US-China war over Taiwan, Beijing counts on steady oil flows from Tehran, which is expected to defy US threats. As a way of locking in Iranian oil supply and expanding Chinese capital-good exports to Iran, Beijing has now become a major investor in Iran's energy exploration and development, including the US-disapproved Caspian Republics Oil Swap project. For Iran, Chinese technological inputs are welcome, since they come with no strings attached.

Clearly, there are tradeoffs between Sino-Iranian partnership and maintenance of Sino-US comity. Beijing is also wary of alienating Arab states and Israel in the process of wooing Tehran. Garver rates Chinese management of these contradictions "an impressive diplomatic accomplishment" (p 284). He predicts that Sino-Iranian ties will be a durable element of the evolving Asian structure of power. As Iran is more comfortable with China's rise than any other major Asian state, "an Iranian anchor could emerge as a central element of a post-unipolar China-centered Asia" (p 295).

While Garver's oracle does seem plausible for the long run, the more immediate question is whether the United States will use force to topple the current government in Tehran. As long as the US remains essential for Chinese economic development, Tehran seems dispensable to Beijing. Should George W Bush choose to leave office with a bang against Iran, China may not do much except whimpering.

China and Iran: Ancient Partners in a Post-Imperial World by John Garver. University of Washington Press, Seattle, 2007. ISBN: 9780295986319. Price: US$14.95, 401 pages.

(Copyright 2007 Asia Times Online Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)  

China and the 'enlightened' West (Mar 31, '07)

The third way for China (Mar 17, '07)



All material on this website is copyright and may not be republished in any form without written permission.
Copyright 1999 - 2007 Asia Times Online (Holdings), Ltd.
Head Office: Unit B, 16/F, Li Dong Building, No. 9 Li Yuen Street East, Central, Hong Kong
Thailand Bureau: 11/13 Petchkasem Road, Hua Hin, Prachuab Kirikhan, Thailand 77110