By Katya Mavrelli,
By signing a 25-year cooperation agreement with Iran, China has dynamically made its presence felt in the Middle East. The oil-rich and regionally influential Islamic Republic is now among those favored by the increasingly influential asian titan. What does this mean for regional stability, for the course of diplomacy and for upcoming economic developments?
The agreement, signed on March 27th between Iranian Foreign Minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, and his Chinese counterpart, Wang Yi, was termed the Comprehensive Strategic Partnership and addressed a variety of economic activities ranging from oil and mining to promoting industrial development, transportation and agriculture in Iran. The agreement supports tourism, includes cultural components and addresses the Iranian defense infrastructure. By including clauses about counterterrorism efforts and extensive military alignment, China is strengthening its foothold in the Middle East and makes its presence far from subtle. Additional emphasis was placed on the strategic exploitation of Iran’s young and productive labor force in terms of economic and trade cooperation.
The agreement marked the first time Iran has signed such a lengthy agreement with a major world power, followed by the signing of the 10-year cooperation agreement Iran had signed in 2001 with Russia in the nuclear field, which was later lengthened to 20 years through two five-year extensions. The Strategic Partnership is part of China’s effort to approach fellow Middle East powers and extend its regional influence in the region. The history of the deal dates back to 2016, during Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to Tehran, but the current version of the agreement focuses on exploiting the potential that Iran can offer via economic and cultural cooperation.
The deal is particularly important given that it symbolizes the emergence of a new theater in the US-China great power competition. The Persian Gulf and the region of the greater Middle East is a vital strategic front, with the ability to stabilize an environment that can produce economic growth or degradation. This stability rests upon the assumption that with the addition of Iran in China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BIR), less hurdles will emerge to halt its systematic expansion towards the West and against the US. Despite reluctant European investors, China has proceeded to pour investments into the Islamic Republic, just as it did in Africa, remaining unobserved for years. Under the ‘One Belt, One Road’ project, China is steadily expanding its political influence and investment footprint and is aiming to deepen its influence and engagement in the region by establishing these long-term ties.
And though the China-Iran partnership was sudden and caught many by surprise, Iran isn’t the only country in the region to maintain strategically positive relationships with the Asian titan. China has invested an amount of $83 billion in other Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states, like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. These investments are part of technology projects, fisheries, oil projects and are incorporated into China’s Maritime Silk Road project. Given their geopolitical position, these GCC states are important and can help China further expand its trade exchange.
Given its interests and its deepening involvement, China now seems to take a greater security role in the region in order to protect its growing interests regarding freedom of navigation and regional supremacy. Despite these assumptions, China’s stance showcases some reluctance for further involvement in the regional tensions between the Arab states and seems to be willing to avoid military confrontation by all means. This additionally proves that, despite the growing interests and the strategic importance, China’s plan regarding the Middle East isn’t concretely defined yet. Despite this lack of clarity, China remains willing to balance its relations with all key Middle East players, forming relations and serving as the bridge between Arab rivals.
Washington will now have to confront China directly, given that it can no longer avoid observing its presence in regions that are of key strategic importance for the US. China is currently challenging years of laid-out foundations and institutions and is shaking the status quo by forming a coalition of curious, interested and influential players around it. And because of this, the probability of conflict in the region diminishes by the hour, due to the far-reaching effects this would have on key strategic players’ interests.
Beijing’s presence is shaking up alliances that were formed decades ago and dictates the future of links that were even unheard of. China’s role is becoming increasingly more pervasive, vividly felt and harder to avoid. With subtle and decisive diplomacy, China silently becomes the undisputed leading political and economic leader of the 21st century.
- Alterman, J. B., China’s Balancing Act in the Gulf, Center for Strategic and International Studies, Available here
- Holmes, F., China’s Belt and Road Initiative Open Up Unprecedented Opportunities, Forbes, Available here