Close, but not too
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
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
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
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
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
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
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"
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.
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