Written By Flynt Leverett.
Chinese President Xi Jinping’s trip to Iran, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia last month largely succeeded at realizing its designers’ most immediate goal: highlighting China’s rise as an important strategic as well as economic reference point for states across the Middle East. Chinese commentators note that Xi is the only major power leader who could go to the Middle East amidst escalating regional tensions; surely, he is the only high-profile national leader who could visit both Riyadh and Tehran during a precipitous deterioration in Iranian-Saudi relations? Certainly, neither U.S. President Barack Obama nor Russian President Vladimir Putin could replicate this.
Xi’s trip also highlights two profoundly consequential trends in China’s foreign policy: the deepening of its Middle East agenda and the broadening of its grand strategy. Both are inextricably tied to the evolution of China’s relations with Iran.
On the surface, Xi’s itinerary reflected a calculated image of diplomatic “balance,” between Saudi Arabia and Iran and, more broadly, between those still desirous of U.S. “leadership” in the Middle East and those seeing the policies of Washington and its partners as wellsprings for the region’s current travails. But his trip intersected with developments—initial implementation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) between Iran and the P5+1, an ongoing groundswell of Sunni jihadi militancy across the Muslim world, and elevation of the “new Silk Road” into the signature foreign policy project of Xi’s presidency—that made Tehran his most strategically meaningful stop. China will undoubtedly continue significant bilateral relationships with Saudi Arabia and other “pro-U.S.” players in the Middle East (including Israel). But Xi’s visit to Tehran (the first by a Chinese president in fourteen years) underscored Iran’s rising importance in Chinese strategy, toward the Persian Gulf and toward “west Asia” more generally.
Iran and the Deepening of Beijing’s Middle East Agenda
China has long had substantial economic relations with Iran. For over a decade, Iran has been one of China’s top oil suppliers; in the process, China became, even under sanctions, the biggest consumer of Iranian oil exports. More broadly, China has emerged as arguably Iran’s most important international economic partner, passing Europe to become both the Islamic Republic’s leading source of imports and its largest foreign investor. Xi’s arrival in Tehran, immediately after the lifting of nuclear-related sanctions as part of JCPOA implementation, signaled Beijing’s interest in taking this already robust economic partnership to the next level.
China, of course, has other economic partners in the Middle East. But, more than with other regional relationships, Beijing also has strategic interests at stake in its ties to Tehran. Chinese policymakers have come to appreciate that American ambitions to effective hegemony over the Middle East—manifested in invasions, occupations, and other sorts of coercive intervention—contribute more to instability in the region than to stability. Likewise, advent of the Islamic State has focused Beijing’s attention on how U.S. collaboration, over years, with Saudi Arabia to arm, fund, and train Sunni militants is fueling the current tide of jihadi militancy sweeping the Muslim world. This tide threatens Chinese interests not just in the Middle East but in Central Asia, too; as Chinese Muslims become more connected to transnational jihadi networks, it threatens China’s internal security as well.
Chinese policymakers have come to understand that there needs to be an at least minimally balanced distribution of power in the Middle East, between a pro-U.S. camp and a camp—first among which is Iran—interested in foreign policy independence. This is crucial to forestalling open-ended American dominance over the region and preventing Washington from using Persian Gulf hydrocarbons as leverage against China. It is also essential to marshalling an even minimally effective coalition against the Islamic State and elements of al-Qa’ida—a coalition that can contain these groups politically and fight them militarily. From China’s vantage, it seems dubious that U.S. allies like Saudi Arabia and Turkey, whose policies facilitated jihadi movements’ growth, can be serious partners in combatting them; by contrast, Iran’s opposition to the Islamic State and al-Qa’ida is clear.
These challenges condition growing awareness in Beijing that China needs not just economic partners in the Middle East but also partners that share its regional assessment and can effect on-the-ground outcomes. Such considerations ground a uniquely strategic dimension to China’s relationship with Iran. They also make Iran increasingly critical in Beijing’s broader strategic calculations—especially in the context of China’s “new Silk Road” project.
Iran, the New Silk Road, and the Broadening of China’s Grand Strategy
The “new Silk Road” integrates two ideas introduced by Xi early in his presidential tenure. One is the essentially land-based “New Silk Road Economic Belt,” which will extend infrastructural, trade, and financial connectivity from western China through Eurasia all the way to Europe. The other is the “Maritime Silk Road of the 21st Century,” which will extend sea-based connectivity from China around the Indian Ocean basin, into the Persian Gulf and Red Sea, and, via the Suez Canal, into the Mediterranean. Now widely described as “one belt, one road,” these initiatives envision enormous infrastructure development and investment campaigns to expand China’s economic links to—and its political influence across—much of Eurasia.
The drivers of “one belt, one road” are, first of all, economic: to solidify ties to hydrocarbon producers, to cultivate new export markets for Chinese goods and capital—markets to China’s west, in contrast to established markets in advanced economies to its east, and to promote new economic sectors. These goals underlie Beijing’s “1+2+3” model for relations among “new Silk Road” partners: cooperation on hydrocarbon-based energy as the core, expanding trade and investment and building connective infrastructure as two wings, and cooperation on nuclear energy, space, and “new” energy as three breakthroughs. With this model, Chinese policymakers want to promote more geographically balanced growth in China by jump-starting economic modernization in the western part of the country.
But Chinese interlocutors also acknowledge powerful strategic drivers for “one belt, one road”—drivers reflecting a widening of the aperture for China’s grand strategic calculations. Strategically, “one belt, one road” is, in no small part, a response to U.S. “rebalancing” toward Asia. Beijing is meeting what it sees as U.S. efforts to contain China to its east by expanding its diplomatic and political engagement to its west. While Beijing continues to rule out military confrontation with the United States as in any way a rational prospect, it pursues “one belt, one road” to foster, through non-military means, a more genuinely balanced distribution of geopolitical influence in strategically crucial regions to China’s west.
Among prospective partners, Iran is unique in that geography makes it important to realizing both the New Silk Road Economic Belt and the Maritime Silk Road. Just weeks after Xi left the Iranian capital, the first train connecting China and Iran arrived in Tehran. Looking ahead, perhaps the most significant of the many memoranda of understanding and other accords concluded during Xi’s visit to Tehran is an initial agreement for China to build high-speed rail in Iran—a potentially critical step in engaging Iran in “one belt, one road.”
During Xi’s stay in Tehran, China and Iran upgraded their ties to a “comprehensive strategic partnership,” including plans for a 25-year “comprehensive cooperation agreement.” These moves show that engaging Iran is key to realizing China’s goal of a real balance of influence in Eurasia’s heartland—including areas like the Persian Gulf that Washington has long considered vital to America’s global position.
Flynt Leverett is professor of international affairs at Penn State and co-author of Going to Tehran: Why America Must Accept the Islamic Republic of Iran and Moving (Slightly) Closer to Iran: China’s Shifting Calculus for Managing its “Persian Gulf Dilemma”. Image Credit: CC by L.C. Nøttaasen/Flickr.