Trump is Pushing Iran Closer to China
China has defied Trump's ban and continues to buy Iranian oil. (Photo: Bloomberg)
By Anita Inder Singh

Trump is Pushing Iran Closer to China

Sep. 05, 2019  |     |  0 comments

Could China be the beneficiary of US President Donald Trump’s determination to crush Iran’s nuclear program — through force if necessary? The American Global Hawk drone shot down by Iran in June 2019, Iranian attacks on oil tankers in May and June, and Washington’s threats to obliterate Iran, augur the exacerbation of international insecurity.   


China’s strong interest in Iran would make it the foreign country most affected by an armed conflict. Iran lies at the heart of Beijing’s geostrategic vision for the 21st century. China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) runs through nearly 2,000 kilometers of Iranian territory. It also connects Iran with Central Asia and east China. In fact, Iran is a junction of the BRI.


Apart from China, no foreign power has the clout to help ease tensions between Iran and the US. The diplomacy of the European Union (EU) has failed to persuade Trump to lift the ban on Iranian oil imports. Meanwhile, Iran has spurned the EU’s demand that it maintain uranium enrichment within the limits agreed on in the 2015 nuclear deal (the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action or JCPOA). Russia’s preoccupation with Ukraine, Syria and protests in Moscow rule out strong diplomatic or military support for Iran.


China has said little. Beijing called for restraint when Iran shot down the American drone. China also reiterated its commitment to the JCPOA and warned against the danger of “opening Pandora’s box”. It could hardly welcome an Iran-US war or wish to embroil itself in one because of its strong tie with Iran, especially while it fights a trade war with the US.


Even as the US threatens Iran with oil sanctions and war, China goes ahead with trade and infrastructure building there. Meanwhile, Iran’s dependence on China highlights their shared interests against the US in the Middle East, Central and South Asia. With regard to the US, it is a case of my friend’s enemy is also my enemy.


Twenty percent of Iran’s exports go to China; 26 percent of its imports come from China. China’s many infrastructure projects across Iran range from the development of the huge South Pars gas field to smaller projects like public transport schemes in several cities. Chinese goods are popular in Iran’s markets. Most significantly, perhaps, China has defied Trump’s ban on Iranian oil imports and continues to buy Iranian oil.  


Beijing is playing with several irons in the fire. Apparently, it does not wish to put all its eggs in the Iranian basket. Its trade war with Washington and its global ambitions make the US its top strategic priority. China is also deepening trade and investment ties with other regional powers, some of which, like Saudi Arabia and Israel, are US allies. Israel and Saudi Arabia are also hostile to Iran. 


But China is Israel's third largest trading partner globally and largest trading partner in East Asia. Beijing therefore performs a skillful balancing act between Iran, Saudi Arabia and Israel. 


In the event of war, Iran would not be helpless. Its threat to close the Strait of Hormuz, if carried out, would harm the many countries shipping oil through the Persian Gulf. So what could Beijing do? To begin with, it would probably call for peace. That may not be enough for Iran. But Tehran would have little choice except to move closer to Beijing.   


At another level, geostrategy would shape China’s policy towards a warring US and Iran. China’s influence in Iran, which gives it proximity to the Gulf of Oman, shows that China is already a Middle Eastern power. War between the US and Iran would impinge on China’s strategy in the Indian Ocean and its implementation of the BRI across Central, South and West Asia. China’s security interests actually extend beyond Iran: they are intertwined across these three regions.  

Does the US really want Iran to move closer to China? If the ultimate beneficiary of Trump’s hard line stance against Iran would be China, shouldn’t the US rethink its hostile attitude to Iran?  

A major reason is that the Gulf of Oman is of strategic importance to China and not just because Iran shot down US planes over this waterway. The crucial point is that the Gulf of Oman links the Middle East, South and East Asia in China’s BRI. Additionally, the Gulf of Oman is a focus of China’s BRI. Beijing wants to get oil and gas transported directly by pipeline from Iran northwards into China. If this plan takes off, China could avoid the narrow and crowded Strait of Malacca, upon which it currently depends for much of its imported oil.


The Gulf separates Oman from both China’s friends, Iran and Pakistan. Iran’s Chabahar port, situated on the Gulf of Oman, is currently being built by India, the rival of both Pakistan and China. Chabahar and Pakistan’s Gwadar port are entry points into the Arabian Sea and Indian Ocean. The expansion of the BRI across South Asia alone explains why. First, Iran’s neighbor, Pakistan, is a vital milestone on the BRI. China has developed a state-of-the-art container port at Gwadar in south-west Pakistan, with the intent of linking it through roads, railways and pipelines to western China.


Second, Gwadar highlights China’s maritime and land interests in Iran. From Gwadar, the Chinese can monitor shipping traffic through the Strait of Hormuz. China’s friendly ties with Iran and Pakistan could empower it to challenge both India and the US in the Indian Ocean region. Those two maritime spaces are vital strategic areas for India and the US.


The US is hostile to Iran. In contrast, India and Iran have settled many differences and built amicable ties. But India has bowed to the US ban on Iranian oil imports. That raises the question whether it could lose the vantage point it has gained by investing in Chabahar. For, in May 2018, Iran offered the development of Chabahar to China and Pakistan.


If American sanctions on Iran result in India losing its position in Chabahar, both India and the US would present the advantage to China. Unlike India and member states of the EU, Beijing did not comply with the decade-long international sanctions on Iran (2005-2015). China then emerged as the strongest influence in Iran. New Delhi’s decision to accept Washington’s new ban on Iranian oil imports could see India losing whatever influence it had gained by developing Chabahar after 2015. But the US would also lose if friendly India ceased to be a potential counter to China in Iran. 


Given China’s strong position in and around Iran, a US-Iran war would work against Washington’s interests in the Middle East and South Asia. An armed conflict would push Iran into strengthening its bond with China. That bond is already mutually advantageous: China buys much of Iran’s liquefied petroleum gas. Trump’s ban on Iranian oil imports is unlikely to place insurmountable obstacles in the way of stronger Iran-China energy ties.


On good terms with both the US and Iran, India would certainly stand to lose from a war. It would not be able to dispense with the US as the main counterpoise to China in Asia. But if it were to side with the US, its position in Iran would be jeopardized. India’s predicament would result in strategic gain for China.  


Does the US really want Iran to move closer to China? If the ultimate beneficiary of Trump’s hard line stance against Iran would be China, shouldn’t the US rethink its hostile attitude to Iran?  


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