September 28, 2023

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Defying alienation: China and Iran should cooperate with each other with more trust

The relationship between China and Iran is always a hot topic. The Comprehensive Strategic Partnership (CSP) between China and Iran, which was announced in 2016, is a reflection of the common national identity and shared strategic interests of the two.

Despite challenges, the partnership is moving forward steadily. To safeguard the partnership, China and Iran need to work together to overcome existential and potential internal and external efforts to alienate the two.

The partnership between China and Iran is founded on both old values and shared interests, and the following four are particularly significant. 

The first should be the spirit of mutual respect among civilizations. Both China and Iran are old civilizations with thousands of years of history. Unlike the relations between other civilizations, the two had never been on a conflicting track. Instead, the relations had been marked with peaceful exchanges of commodities and cultures. Karez, as an ancient wisdom to deal with drought, is the evidence of mutual learning between the two though there is a dispute about who originated the technology. Karez is one but not the only example.

The spirit of mutual respect among civilizations is also crucial in the relations between the two since the Islamic Revolution as both sides respect the political systems and development paths chosen by the other. China had been one of the P5 that had recognized Iran’s political system politically and Iran’s cultural traditions and had clearly voiced its opposition against Western efforts to interfere into Iran’s internal affairs.

The second should be the complementary nature of the economies of the two countries. Iran is one of major exporters of hydrocarbon energy while China will remain to be the largest importer in the long future. Iran has one of the biggest potential markets of infrastructure construction while Chinese companies could deliver infrastructure construction of good quality. Iran is one of the countries having the largest number of tourist scenes while China has the largest number of potential tourists.

 The third should be shared experiences of being humiliated by the colonialists. Since the 19th century, both China and Iran had been occupied or invaded by Western colonialist powers, as a result, modern China and Iran value sovereignty and the principles of non-interference and self-reliance. The shared experiences had been one of the reasons why the two can easily understand the psychology and aspirations of the other side.

The fourth should be the shared strategic interests. China and Iran are two of the major victims of power politics and hegemonic policies of some Western powers. For instance, China and Iran are two of the targets of “maximum pressure” policy when Donald Trump was the US president, and are two of the countries that have been sanctioned most seriously by the US. China and Iran are natural partners working together to change the status.

All the four momentums together with other ones are important shaping Chian-Iran partnership. The shared experiences and identities have served as a kind of factor that had made the relations between the two stable all through ups and downs of international politics as the two can understand better the psychology and language of the other. The shared economic and strategic interests had contributed largely to the strengthening of the relations between the two in the last decades.

The partnership had actually benefited both China and Iran. China and Iran together had become the forces driving the great changes in the international order, which was mainly featured with the rising of the East and the decline of the West. China had been able to improve its political and strategic standings in the Middle East and the world as well because of its partnership with Iran. 

Iran particularly had benefited from the partnership with China. China had been the largest importer of Iran’s crude oil before the US launched the serious sanctions in 2012, and had been the only country that had openly defied US unilateral sanctions after Trump imposed “maximum pressure” on Iran. According to the latest report by Tehran Times on July 30, Iran’s exports to China reached 585,000 bpd in 2021, the figure stood at 766,000 bpd in 2022, and reached about 1 million bpd in 2023, which was more than half of Iran’s total oil export. Judging by the dual slumps of global economy and hydrocarbon energy market, the number was great as China was also facing pressure to import oil from other major exporters.

China also contributed greatly to Iran’s tourist industry. According to Babak Besharati, Representative of Iran-China Chamber of Commerce, the number of tourists from China had increased abruptly since the beginning of 2023. June of 2023 saw flights between China and Iran were full loaded, and tourists from China had taken more than half of hotel rooms in major Iranian cities.

China’s political support for Iran also improved Iran’s standing in the region. China brokered Iran’s resumption of diplomatic relations with Saudi Arabia, which has paved the way for Iran to improve the neighboring environment for economic development. China’s support for Iran to enter SCO had greatly neutralized diplomatic isolation against Iran by the arrogant powers, and strengthened Iran’s position in bargaining with the West. China’s support for Iran’s legitimate rights in JCPOA enhanced Iran’s position in struggling against the West.

Nevertheless, there are more expectations among Iranian experts about further China-Iran cooperation. Some argue that China-Iran economic cooperation should not just stand at the level of China’s exporting energy, and the two should have big projects and more exchange of science and technology. It should be reasonable, but it will ultimately depend on how and whether the two can jointly overcome some of the technical obstacles. 

It had been only 6 months since China removed travel restrictions and President Raisi visited China in February. And in at least two or three months after the visit, the two were both busy with domestic agendas as China was having Spring Festival and the two sessions and Iran was having Nowruz and Ramadan. It was too short time to see achievements.

Having said all these, what is most important is that the two sides should work together to overcome the challenges ahead. The primary one should be the internal and external alienation. The consensus of developing the China-Iran partnership has been growing both in China and Iran at different levels. However, there are still efforts questioning the rationale behind the China-Iran partnership in both countries. Some Iranian experts were worried that Iran is too much dependent on China, which might undermine Iran’s relations with the West and other parts of the world. In China, the importance of Iran as a major regional power is not sufficiently recognized at some levels of the bureaucracy. Though not mainstream, these internal factors do undermine mutual trust between the two.

External alienating efforts are numerous but mainly in two ways. On the one hand, some hegemonic power would like to deliver a picture of removing sanctions on Iran so as to make Iran have illusions for the West while distancing itself from China though they have never been serious about removing Iran sanctions as US domestic politics are far from ready to do so. On the other hand, they are taking tougher sanction measures so as to lay obstacles in China-Iran economic relations and undermine Iran’s confidence in economic cooperation with China, which will finally cause Iranian suspicion against China.

On the other side of the story, China is also facing various kinds of pressures of developing economic relations with Iran. Huawei was a typical example in this regard. One of the major reasons behind US sanctions on Huawei was its commercial activities in Iran. Besides the case of Huawei, the US as well as some regional actors particularly do not want to see China increasing import of crude from Iran, and the US put sanctions on many Chinese companies. By these, they intended to frustrate Chinese companies and bureaucracies in their cooperation with Iran. 
All in all, the China-Iran Comprehensive Strategic partnership is solidly founded, and progress is visible despite high expectations. The future will see the China-Iran partnership

moving forward. For that purpose, both China and Iran will have to strengthen mutual trust and prevent both internal and external alienating efforts. Both sides should be well aware that the current level of cooperation is not easily achieved, and both sides need to value the partnership with patience.
Dr. Jin Liangxiang is Senior Research Fellow, Shanghai Institutes for International Studies

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