China Aims to Keep Iran Close but Not at Any Price
China’s reaction to the killing of Iranian general Qassem Suleimani was swift but relatively restrained, reflecting a delicate web of interests it wants to guard in the region. China is unusual in that it has good relationships, or mutual interests, with countries on all sides of the apparently endless, roiling conflict in the Middle East. These include Israel and Palestine, Iraq, Iran, and Russia, as well as the European states and even – despite their ongoing trade dispute – the United States.
This constellation has the potential to make China an interesting player – though for now, like a cat, it is picking its way very carefully through the quagmire, watching and staying mostly above the fray.
No question, China is genuinely worried about the consequences of the US attack for the region and the world. It fears the spread of instability affecting trade, persons, and the nuclear balance of power. It also wants to avoid negative fallout for the Belt and Road Initiative, its geo-economic plan to project power that traverses the Middle East.
Very importantly for China, the attack on Suleimani is an opportunity to appear responsible in comparison to the US. It exploited this advantage fully by calling early, publicly, and repeatedly for all sides to respect “the basic norms of international relations” at a moment when the US seemed to be upending them. Unlike Russia, China did not use blunt language to condemn the attack but focused on the moral high ground. This tone is reflected in the full text of the statement that China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman, Geng Shuang, gave just hours after Suleimani’s killing on January 3:
“China consistently opposes the use of force in international relations. It advocates for all sides to earnestly respect the goals and basic principles of the United Nations Charter and the fundamental norms of international relations. Iraq’s sovereignty, independence, and territory should be honored, and the peace and stability of the Middle East region should be safeguarded. We urge all sides, especially the US, to maintain cool heads and self-control to avoid a tense situation escalating further.
Subsequently, China’s two top foreign affairs officials – the director of the Communist Party’s foreign affairs office, Yang Jiechi (who is also a state councilor and a former foreign minister), and Foreign Minister Wang Yi – got busy speaking with their counterparts from around the world, including those in Iraq and Iran, Russia and Europe, as well as the United States.
China is determined not to let the Iran nuclear deal collapse entirely – a message that is welcome to the European Union, which, like China and unlike the US, has bilateral relations with Iran. After all, the EU is responsible for the near-impossible task of coordinating – and achieving consensus for – the collapsing Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPoA), as the nuclear deal agreed upon in 2015 is formally known. Under President Donald Trump, the US withdrew from this deal in 2018. The country has not had diplomatic relations with Iran since the Iranian revolution in 1979.
China has “close economic, trade, and infrastructure cooperation with all countries in the region,” said Geng at another press conference on January 8. “We’ve said it so often: a further deterioration in the situation is in no one’s interests.”
China also has growing military connections with the Middle East, recently taking part in its first joint naval exercises there with Iran and Russia – four days of drills in the northern Indian Ocean that started on December 27, 2019. These were important to Iran, too: “Us hosting these powers shows that our relations have reached a meaningful point and may have an international impact,” Rear Admiral Gholamreza Tahani said on Iranian state television, as reported by Al Jazeera.
For its part, China wants to keep Iran close – but not at any price. Asked by a reporter if China was prepared to step in to fill the void if the US were to exit Iraq, Geng said no – indirectly. Based on existing agreements China has to help rebuild the country, he said: “We are willing to continue to make our contribution to help Iraq realize its stability and development.” Another careful response. If China were not an atheist nation, it might have said: “God helps those who help themselves.”
For China, Iran is, above all, an ally of convenience. That is not necessarily personal. China does not really have allies because that would oblige it to view another country as a peer – something it does not do. Under the Communist Party, China remains autarkic: a civilizational power that wants to reshape, not just join, the world. Consequently, though China is a defender of Iran at this point, it is primarily guarding its own ability to have influence.
One reason is the 200,000 barrels of oil that it gets from the country per day via the Straits of Hormuz. Although Iran would like China to buy more of its oil to help blunt US sanctions, it has actually decreased its demand. Nevertheless, an unhappy Iran could still cut that significant supply. Tellingly, China stopped short of arranging the evacuation of its nationals from Iran. Instead, the Chinese embassy in Tehran issued a safety notice, asking them to be watchful and remain in touch over any security concerns.
Accordingly, while Europe and China share the goal of de-escalation in the Middle East, the EU should temper its expectations of China using its influence ultimately for anyone but itself. Europe would also do well to remember that China is still trying to reach a favorable trade deal with the US. Still, China’s message – calm, restraint, let’s negotiate, let’s decrease tensions – is spot on.