The answer to the above is not as complicated as many think. The key factor is to be able to see beyond the modern myth which projects China as the next superpower of the world
China’s place in the world is hotly debated among intellectual and power centers worldwide. The Middle East is one place where China’s role is closely monitored. Since the US views the Middle East as its exclusive zone of interest, it is nervous about Chinese intrusion and influence in the region. However, it is not solely the Chinese role the US is worried about, but the fact that China is entering the Middle East primarily through the Islamic Republic of Iran. If China manages to become an important player in the Middle East through Iran, it will undermine US reputation among its vassal states in the area. This begs the question: How strategic are China-Iran relations?
The answer to the above is not as complicated as many think. The key factor is to be able to see beyond the modern myth which projects China as the next superpower of the world. It is also necessary to briefly examine the standing of China and Iran in the current global order.
The current global, primarily western economic crisis exposes one of the major modern exaggerations, namely the economic and political might of China. The economic crisis has shown that China is much too dependent on the US. In March 2009, Chinese President Wen Jiabao openly expressed his worry about China’s exposure to US Treasury bonds. A state which is a candidate for the role of a hyper-power would not invest billions in the treasury bonds of another state that is on the verge of collapse. It would rather have other states investing billions into its treasury.
China also lacks the ideological basis to be a world leader. Internationally, the Chinese way of life does not appeal to many people; one can hardly witness a rush by people developing a liking for fried rice and chicken, or noodles. Similarly, one does not observe Chinese cultural penetration of other societies as one witnesses the so-called American way of life or of Islam in various parts of the world. Young people throughout the world are either imitating the hedonistic lifestyle of Hollywood or converting to Islam. There is no other alternative available at present.
The primary reason why Chinese power is being marketed is because of its relative economic progress after it capitulated to the US designed global order. It serves as a great marketing tool for the US which never tires of reminding others that China started making “progress” after it began working for the US, not against it.
On the other hand, we have Islamic Iran which is openly challenging the US-imposed global order and has managed to make progress due to its ability to break off from this system. A good example of this would be the current economic crisis. One of the first economists to notice this was Chris Cook, former director of the International Petroleum Exchange and a strategic consultant. When the economic crisis exploded in full fury in the fall of 2008, Cook stated: “I have made clear that the Western ‘market economy’ is fundamentally unsustainable and that its collapse would occur sooner rather than later… It is ironic that Iran has been protected from being infected by the ‘Anglo disease’ by the very sanctions which were aimed at damaging it. I believe that Iran could be the first to evolve a national equity to replace much of its conventional national debt.” While the West’s protégés in the Middle East struggled to attract foreign investment, Iran attracted $1.6 billion in foreign direct investments in 2008, even though a global flow of foreign direct investment decreased by 20% during that same year.
Therefore, China and Iran are positioned at opposite ends of the current global order. While China’s relative success depends on preserving the current imperialist-created order which aided its economic growth, Iran is trying to alter it. However, this does not mean that China cannot alter its position about the status quo. In fact, China realizes that the end result of the current economic and political order will at some point damage its recent relative successes. When the Chinese standard of living rises, it will no longer remain an attractive place for investment. The Chinese government realizes that in order to be attractive to foreign investors its labor force must remain cheap. The average Chinese worker will not ask for an increase in wage from US corporations. The moment the Chinese government decides to raise the living standard of its population, it will come into a strategic conflict with the US-imposed corporate order in China. The Chinese society and government are beginning to see this and are actively seeking solutions to survive the abandonment by western corporations that use China primarily for cheap labor. China realizes its lack of ideological and spiritual force to convert its human and economic strength into a coherent global political and social power. It needs an ally to blend its economic force with someone else’s ideological power. For now this is the US, but Washington is fast losing its appeal and credibility.
Since the US and the West have turned all dealings with Iran into a political tool, China’s trade relations with Tehran have also been drawn it into this confrontation.
Historically, the Chinese have preferred to remain aloof from foreigners and have tried to preserve their own mode of operations. However, the communist experiment and its capitulation to western capitalism created an identity crisis which the Chinese are trying to resolve. Since the US-imposed global order does not tolerate multiple centers of power — whether cultural or ideological — and attempts to Americanize the entire globe, the Chinese are getting frustrated and are looking for alternatives. Avoiding energy dependency on the US is one of the steps China is taking to distance itself from the current global order. This is why Chinese energy firms are looking to invest heavily in the energy sector in Iran. China has allocated $50 billion to invest in Iranian gas and oil, of which $35 billion has already been invested. Currently Iran is China’s second biggest supplier of oil and Beijing’s trade with Iran is growing.
Since the US and the West have turned all dealings with Iran into a political tool, China’s trade relations with Tehran have also been drawn it into this confrontation. So far Chinese participation in this strategic battle is indirect. China has managed to avoid steps that would alienate either. China’s policy is aimed at pleasing both Iran and the West in order not to be drawn into a direct confrontation with either. Any conflict with Iran would undermine China’s prospects of becoming fully independent because its energy supplies will become dependent on US-controlled resources from the Middle East. It will provide the West a strong leverage over China in any future disagreements. Taking into consideration that China’s economy is highly dependent on energy products and it has a vast population to sustain, Beijing cannot afford to lose a major energy supplier like Iran.
Since it has justified its capitulation to the western world order on the basis of economic growth, any setbacks in this area would arouse the wrath of China’s conservative population and its political elite which view China’s current position vis-à-vis the West as too compromising. If China chooses to maintain the status quo it needs Iran to sustain itself economically; if China decides to opt out, it will need Iran as a political ally. All of the above in combination with US policies towards Taiwan, Tibet and India create a huge dependency of China on Iran both economically and politically. Therefore, no matter what strategic course China chooses to follow, it will need Iran.
Taking into consideration that Islam always respected local cultures when it ruled them, Islamic Iran is not aiming to dominate Chinese culture. This creates an atmosphere of mutual respect between the two. Ever since Iran’s earliest encounters with China through the Silk Road, the two have been interested in fair trade relations with one another. This is unlike the corporate West that has abused China’s rural population by exploiting their poverty for cheap labor since trade between the two sides began to grow. Therefore, Iran enjoys a moral advantage in entering the Chinese market and sustaining its presence there on a win-win basis.
Iran will leverage its trade relations with China as a way to win over China’s veto in the UN Security Council, despite recent setbacks, until the existing system is totally reformed. Any attempt by the US to break China’s support for Iran in the UN will require the US taking very radical political and economic steps because Iran and China are natural trading partners. One of the reasons why China finds Iran attractive is because western sanctions against Iran eliminate a large chunk of commercial competition for China. For other societies this would be a problem, but because Iran’s goal is self-sufficiency, it aides China’s purpose.
Attempts by the US to order China on how it must deal with Iran will aggravate the situation and lead to stronger cooperation between Tehran and Beijing. Iran’s ability to apply morality to its political policies creates an enormous intangible power that grants Iran moral authority to build sustainable relationships with others. This enables Iran to attract other countries to become its partners, if not strategic, then at least sustainable partners. The Iran-China partnership is currently at a sustainable level due to their mutual trade interests and the arrogant manner in which the US deals with China vis-à-vis its policy on Taiwan. It is highly unlikely that the US will be able to turn China against Iran to suit Washington’s desires, unless the US is willing to risk major confrontation with Beijing. Based on current realities, the US does not have the political stamina or the will to challenge China.