China’s Strategic Approach Towards the Middle East By Dr Muhammad Akram Zaheer

From 2016, China began to pay special attention to the Middle East. With the immense production capacity of its industries, China is primarily the world’s largest buyer of Middle Eastern fuel. Therefore, establishing closer ties with oil-rich Middle Eastern countries, most of which are allies of the USA, shaped the foundation of Chinese foreign policy towards the Middle East. China issued an Arab policy document in 2016, showing that it would strengthen its ties with the countries of the region with the “Declaration on the Implementation of Sino-Arab Cooperation”.

China has signed Belt and Road Initiative agreements with countries such as Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Iraq, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Kuwait, Egypt and Morocco, and some of them are members of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank which was also initiated in the fields of renewable energy, oil, electricity and civil nuclear energy. In response, China has increased its oil purchases from oil-rich Gulf States, deepening its commitment to the region by increasing its oil purchases.

By signing cooperation agreements with these Arab states, China did not form its Arab policy on the political structure, but on the economic, with these countries or their relations with the USA, nor did it intend to replace the USA, which is a military power in the Middle East.

This is due to the fact that the survival of Chinese investment and infrastructure projects in the Middle East, as well as the security of oil purchases in the Gulf, depended on the US military presence, which it maintained. Chinese entry into the Middle East meant an economic confrontation with the USA, but in doing so, it was careful not to turn its engagement into a struggle for military and political power.

Furthermore, it is not an Arab state, but another Middle Eastern country with which China cooperates fully and through which it will eventually compete with the USA in the international arena.

While Iran’s relations with other countries in the region are marked by greater consistency as long as its ideological and strategic interests are aligned, its relations with world powers are more indecisive and duplicitous. In this regard, it can be seen that Iran pursues a multilateral foreign policy rather than supporting a superpower, and that it seeks to maximize its benefits by maintaining balanced and equitable relations. In fact, at a time when the pragmatic spiritual government signed a landmark nuclear deal with the European Union and the USA in 2015, it was also holding intense talks with China.

The Sino-Iranian deal will not replace Iran’s negotiations with the West, like the nuclear deal and other major deals like the FATF, but it will serve as a trump card to tip the balance in Iran’s favour on these deals. Iran’s global strategy is not to side with the parties, but to use all the agreements it has made with major powers such as the USA, the European Union and China, and will do so in the future. This is the strategic implication of the principle of “multilateralism in international relations”, which Persian diplomacy constantly emphasizes.

The West was offering Iran a package with direct and indirect political terms to lift sanctions and sign a nuclear deal. As a result, it was expected that Iran would undergo gradual social, economic and political change as a result of its integration and stagnation in the international economic system. Lifting sanctions would further boost Iran’s investment and trade cooperation with China, as well as strengthen its ties with the West. In fact, with the easing of sanctions in 2015, China allowed a large number of personnel to go to Iran, paving the way for many medium-sized Chinese companies to explore cooperation opportunities, and to study the Iranian economy.

Although violations of the nuclear deal during Trump’s presidency have boosted China’s economic relations with Iran, it can be seen that between 2015 and 2021, China became Iran’s largest direct or indirect trading partner and oil importer. Despite the sanctions, China’s oil purchases from Iran reached record highs in 2021.Therefore, the 25-year agreement between China and Iran in March 2021 was not a political agreement that Iran has signed with the P5+ 1 as an alternative to the nuclear deal, but this agreement of China has the potential for economic growth.

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The content of the agreement between China and Iran is similar to the strategic agreements in the region. On the other hand, when it is considered the US-Iran nuclear talks, which are still stuck under President Biden, the Sino-Iranian agreement is considered a threat by the USA. In the past, China was demonstrating its ability to tolerate sanctions, using alternative methods such as oil trade and the use of the national currency in joint banking, as one of the most important disciplinary mechanisms in the international system.

China has joined Iran with an alternative approach to the system and its own alternative modern model, aimed at resolving the political recommendations offered by the West. This situation highlights in the case of Iran that the United States is feeling that China is moving towards becoming a global economic power.

In some of Biden’s most recent statements, the threat posed by the prospect of global animosity between the Chinese and liberal development models can be clearly seen as an attempt to strengthen liberal-democratic principles, which the Biden Administration recently strengthened. In short, the Sino-Iranian agreement seems a turning point in the impending shift of power between China and the USA.

According to current indications, even if a nuclear deal had been struck with the USA, Iran would have reached a strategic agreement with China and pursued a multilateral foreign policy with the major powers in the international arena. On the other hand, given its current stalemate with the United States, China’s agreement could have far-reaching consequences in the long run.

For Iran, which is struggling to maintain oil exports despite sanctions, the agreement may improved oil sales from China and the development of energy infrastructure. Particularly, the terms of the agreement are expected to introduce new regulations in the Iranian banking sector, as well as the use of its national currency instead of the US dollar in oil sales, and thus to some extent weaken the Iranian economy. Therefore,these economic measures have the potential to reduce Iran’s isolation as a result of international sanctions. The infrastructure development partnership with China will support Iran’s plans to become a commercial corridor hub, opening it up to neighbouring countries through new road, rail and port projects. Iran’s influence in Lebanon, Syria and Iraq can strengthen its post-war economic and reconstruction power in the region, while, on the other hand, China can strengthen its economic activities and presence in the Middle East.

THe USA’s most powerful trump card of sanctions to return to the nuclear deal has potential to damage the China-Iran Comprehensive Strategic Partnership. In this context, two scenarios emerge for the future of the nuclear deal. The implementation of the nuclear deal between the two parties has accelerated the first scenario, in which the sole purpose of the Biden Administration is to return Iran to international nuclear status. In the second scenario, Iran’s ballistic missiles, military activities in the region and relations with the regional countries, the world should not expect a positive response in return to the nuclear deal. The reason for this is that Iran will not make reassurances to the USA on these issues, particularly after the deal with China, which has the potential to ease sanctions.

The Sino-Iranian deal will not replace Iran’s negotiations with the West, like the nuclear deal and other major deals like the FATF, but it will serve as a trump card to tip the balance in Iran’s favour on these deals. Iran’s global strategy is not to side with the parties, but to use all the agreements it has made with major powers such as the USA, the European Union and China, and will do so in the future. This is the strategic implication of the principle of “multilateralism in international relations”, which Persian diplomacy constantly emphasizes.​

Source: Published in Pakistan Today

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