Given all the differences between China and Iran, it is fascinating to explore their quasi-alliance. While China is an avowedly secular Communist republic, often openly anti-religious, Iran is an Islamic republic promoting radical Shi’a Islam. A recent Pew Research Center poll found that 62 percent of Chinese dislike Iran. Although there are no recent polls in Iran, most Iranians probably lack any fondness for China. Relatively few Chinese know much about Iran and probably fewer Iranians know much about China. While China has an Israeli Embassy in Beijing and Israeli consulates in Shanghai and Guangzhou, and while it has conducted $8 billion in trade with Israel this year, Iran openly wishes to destroy the Jewish state.
China is the world’s leading exporter and is within ten years of becoming the country with the world’s greatest GDP. It is emerging as an economic superpower. Iran, by contrast, is a relatively poor country, and its economy is literally falling apart under the weight of crippling international economic sanctions in retaliation for its nuclear weapons project.
While China is moving toward becoming a political superpower and already sits on the U.N. Security Council, Iran, while negotiating with the West over its nuclear program, remains in international isolation. China is physically (3.8 million square miles) and demographically (1.35 billion people) a huge country, while Iran, with 750,000 square miles and 80 million people, is an aspirant middle range power.
And yet, despite these differences, China and Iran have emerged as quasi-allies. Both are successor states to the famous empires of antiquity (Persian and Chinese empires), which never fought each other. Once, they were even ruled by the same Mongols who sent delegations between Persia and China every two years.
Both countries would like to replace a unipolar American world with a multipolar world in which Iran dominates the Middle East and China dominates Asia. Iran’s main allies are other Shi`a states and parties in the Middle East (Syria, Iraq, Hezbollah, and Hamas) and such anti-American states as Venezuela. China also has a few friends (primarily Pakistan, North Korea, Venezuela), but not ethnically predominant Chinese countries (Taiwan and Singapore).
China is betting that Iran will, in the future, provide imports that China badly needs. In a decade, China may need 10 million barrels of oil a day and Iran is rich with oil, gas, chemicals, and minerals. (Iran already has $50 billion in annual trade with China.) If Iran begins to dominate the Middle East, it could be a vital political ally. Its authoritarian regime does not bother an authoritarian China. As Iran supported the Chinese crushing of the Tiananmen Square democracy demonstrations in 1989, so, too, does China repeatedly threaten to veto (together with Russia) key United Nations actions against Iran. China even denied the illegitimacy of the 2009 election that spawned the Green Movement.
Geographically, with a vital position on the Persian Gulf, Iran could provide port facilities for an expanding Chinese navy and help to protect China’s oil imports. An expanding Iranian military could link up with an expanding Chinese military. China already has provided training for the Iranian military as well as technical support and key weapons to Iran. And, in the past, China helped with the Iranian nuclear program. Finally, 2,000 Chinese already live in Tehran.
So, how does this accord with the notable differences between the two regimes? It means first that the Chinese elite, as I have heard repeatedly in Beijing, are not afraid of an Iranian nuclear program. They know that Iranian nuclear weapons would never be used against them. It means that popular dislike of Iran — and any appreciation for Israel — counts for little compared with what Iran can give an expanding China in the years to come. And it means that this relationship, based on the old Indian slogan thousands of years old, “The enemy of my enemy is my friend,” works now and in the foreseeable future, but may not work forever. Other interests could definitely trump the Chinese interest in Iran. But, for now, the quasi-alliance between China and Iran poses problems for the U.S. and Israel. For Israel, the alliance between China and Iran casts a damper on Israeli efforts to build a strong relationship with the rising Chinese superpower. And in the U.S., efforts to block the Iranian nuclear program are limited because Iran has found a patron in China, both within and outside of the United Nations.email print