By Ding Heng
Following Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to Saudi Arabia late last year when he presided over summits with the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and the Arab League, analysis has emerged that China has betrayed Iran. Proponents of this narrative even suggest that Iran is barely benefiting from the 25-year strategic agreement signed with China in 2021.
Judging from Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi’s recent China visit, such analysis is, to say the least, far-fetched, if not nonsense.
It’s unrealistic to expect the 25-year road map to immediately generate huge economic benefits, as many details of it are still being discussed between the two sides. However, China’s attitude matters. Raisi’s trip witnessed the signing of 20 cooperation agreements including tourism and trade, meaning China is genuinely committed to implementing the road map worth $400 billion.
In fact, US sanctions against Iran and the deadlocked talks on reviving the 2015 nuclear deal are posing great technical difficulties in the road map’s implementation. This is probably part of the reasons why, during his talks with Raisi in Beijing, Xi Jinping pledged that China will continue to constructively participate in negotiations on resuming the nuclear agreement.
China unequivocally opposes nuclear proliferation. However, from China’s perspective, it is an act of unilateralism and bullying that the US reimposed sanctions against Iran after its 2018 withdrawal from the nuclear deal. Certainly, this is something that China opposes as well, because it not only destabilizes the Middle East but also causes damage to China’s own interests through secondary sanctions.
At a time when Iran faces enormous economic pressure due to sanctions, China’s support to Iran is more than just rhetorical. According to Reuters, China is purchasing more Iranian oil than it did before former US President Donald Trump slapped new sanctions on Tehran. China has remained Iran’s largest trading partner for 10 years in a row. Iran’s official data show that its exports of non-oil products to China grew 10% in the country’s 2021 fiscal year. In a recent article published on the People’s Daily, Raisi used a vivid Chinese proverb which is the equivalent of “a friend in need is a friend indeed”. This is a sign that the real support from China is widely felt and appreciated in Iran.
Over the years, Beijing has taken a balanced approach to the Middle East. For instance, China made sure to sign a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership with both Iran and Saudi Arabia during a visit by Xi Jinping to the region in 2016. The fact that China hosted Raisi two months after Xi’s Saudi Arabia trip shows that there is no shift in China’s approach of treating countries in the region equally.
It’s true that a joint statement issued after the China-GCC summit in December drew attention from Tehran, as one article concerning three islands on the Persian Gulf was perceived by Iran as unfriendly. This was the first time that China expressed an opinion on the islands. Frankly, China had no intention to offend Iran other than calling for peaceful means to resolve the issue. By sending its vice premier to Tehran, China has responded to Iran’s sentiment with humility. And during Raisi’s visit, China has reiterated support to Iran in safeguarding national sovereignty and territorial integrity. There’s no reason why China’s continuous goodwill gesture can’t alleviate Iran’s concern, and this episode is unlikely to cast a shadow on the Iran-China relations.
In addition, Iran’s full membership in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) is set to take effect soon. Days ahead of his China visit, Raisi issued an order for implementing the law on Iran’s SCO membership. Apart from addressing a realistic need in completing the procedure of joining the grouping, Raisi seemed to have delivered a message that Iran looks forward to closer cooperation with China under the SCO’s framework. China has openly voiced support for Iran’s SCO accession for at least 7 years, which played a key role in Iran’s successful application for full membership.
What’s behind China’s ardent support here?
Firstly, full SCO membership matters to Iran in that the country could be better positioned to neutralize US sanctions. Meanwhile, the SCO has benefitted China tremendously by facilitating its counter-terror efforts in Xinjiang and creating new opportunities for its foreign trade and outbound investment. Iran’s accession means renewed relations between the SCO and the Islamic world, which could create new momentum in the SCO-wide security and economic cooperation. In return, that would of course further benefit China.
The US pressures against both China and Iran prompt the two countries to strengthen their ties, but a closer relationship between them is not just about a mutual need to navigate US hostilities. Regional stability and prosperity are perhaps a more important dimension.
(The author is a host with CGTN Radio. The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own.)