CHINA has long courted Iran as a tentative ally in the Middle East.
Moscow has played the middle man in this relationship, but there are still doubts whether Beijing would maintain close ties with Tehran if conflict breaks out.
Redaction Politics spoke exclusively to China expert Dr Jonathan Sullivan, who suggested the relationship between China and Iran isn’t as strong as anti-imperialists would like to think.
He claimed that China, despite viewing Iran as a useful partner against US hegemony, would still seek its own path.
He said: “China has no interest in getting in a hot war with the US under any circumstances. The bilateral relationship is deteriorating and becoming more complicated, but there are still areas of cooperation, mutual need and friction is manageable.
“China is developing global interests and has a long term interest in promoting mulitipolarity, ie reducing American hegemony.
“Iran is a player in promoting multipolarity from China’s perspective and thus is valued for that reason.
“But China’s strategy is focused on modernizing its military (there is still a huge gap to the US), protecting core interests and gradually expanding its influence through economic and institutional means. Military conflict is not in their interest or likely.”
Fresh sanctions on Iran following last week’s missile strikes has thrown the country into further domestic strife.
In the past Russia has been a key economic ally, but there are doubts over whether China, a larger player, would do the same.
In fact, more than a facade of Chinese support for Iran, Beijing’s actions may be based on anti-Washington sentiment and a chance to expand their own influence in the Middle East.
Dr Sullivan said: “There is sympathy for Iran in the face of what is perceived as American bullying, which is a major theme in Chinese nationalism.
“China does not support American sanctions or military actions, and generally is happy to follow the European response. It does not want to align with other actors in what might be framed as the “anti American camp”.
“Quietly, however there is an opportunity to expand resource acquisition and other investment in Iran, which China is very good at exploiting.”
Ankit Panda wrote in Diplomat that China could see the Iran situation as a chance to stamp their authority on the Middle East.
He wrote: “Depending on how the crisis may evolve, Beijing might find itself forced to take on greater responsibility.
“China’s relationship with Iran is complex, but Beijing hardly sees Tehran’s ability to act on its own preferences in the Middle East as relevant to its interests.”
Dr Sullivan agrees – but feels China will not push the diplomatic boat out too far if it wants to be seen as a responsible leader.
He added: “China has an interest in diversifying power structures in Eurasia and the Middle East, which means there is an incentive to cultivate relationships that weaken the US position.
“And Iran is a powerful and resource rich country, which is of great interest to China.
“There is, thus, much potential for the development of China Iran relations.
“However, China wants to avoid direct geopolitical conflict with the US, doesn’t want to align too closely with Russia, which it is sceptical about, and it wants to be seen as a responsible stakeholder.
“Therefore, it is unlikely to do something that is totally unsupported by Europe.”
Dr Jonathan Sullivan is the Director of China programs at the University of Nottingham Asia Research Institute.
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