Even as the U.S. considers Iran’s nuclear program as its most immediate threat, a consensus has emerged in the U.S. foreign policy establishment that China’s rise poses the biggest long-term strategic challenge to the country. There is little indication that a similar consensus has taken hold among Iranian elites. It will.
Indeed, as Iran has been preoccupied with the U.S. and its allies over the past decade, China has quietly established a growing presence along all of Iran’s borders. In none of these places are Iran and China’s interests perfectly aligned. In some cases, particularly the Middle East, they are starkly at odds. Consequentially, should Iran avoid a conflict with the U.S. in the next few years, it’s likely to find China to be its most menacing threat in the future.
Modern Iran-China Ties: The Story So Far
Some may find the prospect of a clash between the Islamic Republic of Iran and the People’s Republic of China farfetched. After all, the countries share many similarities. Each can legitimately claim to be the heir of one of the great ancient empires of the world, as well as of a nation that more recently suffered a century of humiliation at the hands of Western powers. The interplay between their divergent ancient and modern histories formed the basis of the revolutions that brought the current regimes to power, and have shaped their worldviews ever since. In the post-Cold War era, this worldview has expressed itself most prominently in their shared hostility to Western cultural hegemony in general, and the U.S. in particular.
Not surprisingly, then, the PRC and IRI have enjoyed friendly and growing relations since the latter came to power. During Iran’s war with Iraq in the 1980s, China was one of the only countries to provide Iran with material support. This continued throughout most of the 1990s when Beijing provided Iran with military and nuclear assistance. More recently, China’s insatiable appetite for energy has led to a rapid expansion in economic ties, with Sino-Iranian bilateral trade rising from US$12 billion in 1997 to US$28 billion in 2009, the same year that China became Iran’s largest trading partner. Since then, as sanctions have continued to push Western energy companies out of Iran, Chinese companies have readily filled the vacuum. Consequently, bilateral trade has reached US$45 billion in recent years.
But this ostensibly friendly relationship masks a level of mistrust that runs particularly deep on the Iranian side. Tehran has long perceived China as playing a double game toward it. For example, although Beijing provided Iran with desperately needed arms during its war with Iraq (1980-1988), it provided Baghdad with well over double the amount of arms during the same period.
Similarly, from Tehran’s perspective, China has used Iran as a pawn and source of leverage in its dealings with the United States, always willing to sell it out for the right price. Thus, after years of U.S. pressure, China agreed in 1997 to halt its nuclear assistance to Iran and the sale of certain types of arms to reduce Beijing’s existing tensions with the U.S. This decision included Beijing cancelling a US$4 billion contract for missiles and nuclear technology. More recently, U.S. concessions in other areas have led China to support five UN Security Council resolutions against Iran over its nuclear program. While China watered these down enough to preserve its own interests in Iran, it was less insistent on preventing Western companies from fleeing the country.
Economic relations have also proved to be a source of tension. Although Chinese oil companies have signed numerous multi-billion dollar contracts to develop Iran’s energy industry, Tehran has later terminated many of these over Beijing’s repeated delays. As a 2011 Atlantic Council report noted, “Of the $40 billion in announced China-Iran energy investment deals, less than $3 billion appears to have actually been provided.”
Additionally, Iranian markets have been flooded with cheap Chinese goods in recent years, further devastating Iran’s domestic industry. This has increasingly angered ordinary Iranians and forced the government to claim it was taking measures to reduce imports of non-essential goods from Chinese.
The Eastern Theater: Afghanistan and Pakistan
On top of this general mistrust, Iran and China’s geopolitical interests are increasingly clashing as Beijing comes to encircle Tehran. On Iran’s eastern borders, China has established itself in both Afghanistan and especially Pakistan. Chinese and Iranian interests in these countries are more compatible than in other areas, although there are a couple of possible points of contention.
In Afghanistan, both countries opposed the Taliban’s rule during the 1990s and were happy to see it go. Although Iran recently hosted a Taliban delegation in Tehran, China has maintained much more extensive contacts with the Taliban since it was ousted from power in 2001. Given its strong and growing ties with Pakistan and its desire to protect its investments in Afghanistan, it’s not inconceivable that China will ultimately reconcile with the Taliban should it return to power.
By contrast, Iran has steadily expanded its influence in the anti-Taliban parts of western and central Afghanistan, and has served as one of India’s main access points into Afghanistan, much to China and especially Pakistan’s chagrin. Despite the nascent diplomacy, it’s extremely difficult to imagine the Taliban and Iran cooperating after NATO leaves Afghanistan. Should the Taliban return to power, and Beijing reconcile with the group, Afghanistan could thus become a point of dispute between Iran and China.
Sino-Pakistani ties have expanded greatly in recent years as Islamabad’s relationship with Washington has deteriorated. In some ways, China’s growing presence in Pakistan could benefit Iran. For instance, China is particularly active in Pakistan’s Balochistan Province, where it is trying to develop and protect its investment in Gwadar Port. The instability in Balochistan has long been a threat to Iran, mainly because it has served as a base for the anti-Iranian terrorist group, Jundallah. If China can bring prosperity to Balochistan (this is a big “if”), then it might help stabilize the region and further weaken Jundallah. Further, greater stability would likely lead to a reduction in the growing persecution of Shi’a Pakistanis in the area, which Iran would undoubtedly appreciate.
On the other hand, China’s growing presence in Balochistan could weaken Iran’s ability to influence events there, and an economically prosperous Balochistan could cause unrest across the border in Iran’s Sistan and Baluchestan Province. Moreover, should Iranian-Indian ties continue to prosper, China could see Iran as inhibiting its strategy of using Pakistan to tie down India. As John Garver has noted, China has made it clear that it values its relationship with Pakistan more than its ties to Iran. If forced to choose between them, Beijing will side with Islamabad.
But, as discussed more below, Beijing’s control over Gwadar Port is the biggest potential flashpoint for Iran and China in Pakistan. Gwadar is the last port in the long line of China’s “string of pearls” to the Middle East. Should China ever convert it into a naval base to project power into the Persian Gulf, Iran would be the only country standing between China in Gwadar and the Middle East. Put differently, Iran would be directly in China’s crosshairs.
The Northern Theater: Central Asia
Chinese and Iranian interests are more directly at odds in Central Asia. The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 offered both Iran and China (as well as Turkey) enormous opportunities to expand their influence in this region. Of the two, Iran was better positioned to take advantage of this given its common historical, cultural, and religious ties to the region, which date back to past Persian Empires. Unfortunately, Iran has thus far largely failed in its quest to expand its influence in Central Asia. Nevertheless, it remains committed to this endeavor. Indeed, it is notable that Hassan Rouhani made his first overseas trip to Central Asia to attend the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) summit. Additionally, it has been expanding its commercial and naval presence in the Caspian Sea in recent years.
China initially made little effort to supplement Russia in Central Asia. Over the past ten years, however, it has quickly made up for lost time by expanding its economic, political and security ties to Central Asian states. Beijing is now deeply involved in the region through a web of bilateral relationships and multilateral organizations like the SCO. Indeed, many Central Asian experts argue that China has replaced Russia as the region’s most powerful external actor. As Carnegie’s Martha Brill Olcott recently explained: “China has come to displace both the United States and Russia as the great power with the most influence in Central Asia.” This may overstate the current realities slightly, but the trend lines are clear: China is positioned to dominant the region in the decades to come.
This will put it at odds with Iran. Although both China and Iran’s involvement in Central Asia is driven primarily by Islam and energy, their interests in these matters diverge. With regards to Islam, China fears Central Asian Islamist groups could aid or radicalize its own Muslim population in neighboring Xinjiang Province. It therefore has sought to leverage its economic clout in the region to weaken the forces of Islam, or at least ensure that local regimes prevent the export of radical ideology. On the other hand, under the current regime, Iran sees Islam as the surest way to expand its influence in the region. Thus, it on balance seeks to increase religious fervor among Central Asian people and the ruling elite.
China and Iran’s energy interests in Central Asia are similarly at odds. Under the Soviet Union and as late as 2005, all of the major gas pipelines in Central Asia ran through Moscow, leaving states in the region highly vulnerable to Russian coercion. Not surprisingly, they have sought to diversify their access to consumer markets in Europe and Asia, and Iran and China have been all too willing to oblige theses wishes.
By constructing a series of pipelines and railways – such as the Kazakhstan-Turkmenistan-Iran corridor – Iran has tried to position itself as Central Asia’s outlet to the Persian Gulf. By gaining access to the Persian Gulf, Central Asian states would be able to deliver liquefied natural gas to Europe and Asia without having to go through Russia. As Iran’s official media explained this week: “Iran represents the best route for energy transfer in the region as this route is shorter and less costly than Russia, Turkey and China routes.” In return, Iran will collect the transit fees, reduce its isolation, and also gain greater influence and leverage in Central Asia.
Central Asian states are also looking to China as an alternative to Russia. For example, since 2005 Kazakhstan and China have been connected by an oil pipeline whose capacity has been expanded a couple of times. Meanwhile, when completed the China-Central Asia gas pipeline will start in Turkmenistan, cut through Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan on its way to Xinjiang Province and eventually end in China’s eastern coast. China views its access to these gas and oil resources as critical to its energy security given that overland routes cannot be blockaded by the U.S. Navy. Although Russia is the biggest loser in all this, China’s enormous economic clout ensures that it will easily overshadow Iran in Central Asia. Tehran’s Central Asian ambitions will therefore continue to go unrealized, and Beijing will be the culprit Iran holds to account.
The Western Theater: The Persian Gulf
It is on Iran’s western border with Iraq and the Middle East where its clash with China will be most acute, simply because the Persian Gulf is the most important region for both China and Iran. The importance of the region for Beijing is due almost entirely to its rich energy reserves. According to the Brookings Institution, in 2011 China imported 2.9 million barrels of oil per day (bpd) from the region, which accounted for roughly 60 percent of its oil imports. Although Beijing will strive to reduce its reliance on Middle Eastern oil, it will have to continue to rely heavily on the region for decades to come. Indeed, China’s oil imports are expected to more than double from 2.9 bpd in 2011 to 6.7 bpd in 2035. At that point the region will provide China with 54 percent of its oil imports.
On the other hand, geography has long ensured that the Persian Gulf consumed the bulk of Iran’s foreign policy energy. This is because nearly all of Iran’s land borders are ringed with mountain ranges that are difficult to transverse, which has historically served to protect Iran from attack as well as inhibit its ability to project power outwardly.
The one exception to Iran’s fortress-like borders is along its southwestern border with Iraq where the Tigris and Euphrates rivers meet to form the Shatt al-Arab waterway. Although the area is a massive swamp and fairly easy to defend, it is also relatively flat. This topographic feature has tied Iran and Iraq closely together historically and culturally; ancient Persian empires, for example, often located their capital in modern day Iraq. It has also served as Iran’s greatest vulnerability when in a weakened state, such as immediately after the 1979 revolution when Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi forces invaded Iran through the Shatt al-Arab. In contrast, during times of strength this region is the most sensible area for Iran to project power. In either case, dominating Iraq and exerting influence in the Persian Gulf has been viewed as essential by Iranian leaders from time millennia.
In the decade since the U.S. invaded Iraq, Iran has therefore devoted substantial energy and resources to bogging down the U.S. military and shaping the post-Saddam political order. By nearly any measure, it has been widely successful in these pursuits. In fact, Iran became kingmaker in Iraq following the prolonged political crisis after the disputed 2010 parliamentary elections, which ended only when Tehran worked out a compromise. It used this maneuvering to block U.S. attempts to maintain a residual force in Iraq after 2011.
But the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq poses nearly as many challenges for Iran as its continued presence would have. To begin with, the U.S. withdrawal heightened Sunni insecurity, which – along with the sectarian civil war in Syria – has reignited Sunni resistance to the Shi’a al-Maliki government. Al-Qaeda in Iraq has been strengthened accordingly.
Arguably the greater threat to Iranian influence in Iraq is intra-Shi’a squabbling and Iraqi nationalism. As the Iran-Iraq War demonstrated, nationalism trumps sectarianism for Iraq’s Shi’a population. With the American occupiers gone Iran has to be on guard lest it come to be seen as foreign and malicious in the eyes of Iraqi Shi’a leaders. In the context of intra-Shi’a squabbling, political factions not tied to Iran could seek to use their political opponents’ deference to Iran to undermine their popularity at home. To counter this, the Shia’ parties with substantial ties to Iran could seek to pull back in order to restore their domestic credibility.
Iraq’s ability to reject Iranian influence will ultimately be tied to its own power. In this sense, China’s rapidly expanding presence in southern Iraq poses a nefarious threat to Iranian influence in the country. By building up Iraq’s oil industry, China is empowering Iraq’s political elites to resist Iranian encroachment. That this isn’t Beijing’s intention is of little consolation to Iran. Already, Iraq has surpassed Iran as OPEC’s second-largest oil producer. Iran’s concern was plainly on display this summer when it seized an Indian oil tanker carrying Iraqi crude.
Iraq is not the only Persian Gulf country with which China is deepening its involvement. For the past decade Saudi Arabia – Iran’s principal adversary – has been China’s top oil supplier. Last year Riyadh provided China with a full 20 percent of its oil imports, and this number has been rising steadily. Both sides see this as a long-term relationship, as was evident when they agreed to jointly build an oil refinery in Saudi Arabia last year. China also imports oil from the United Arab Emirates and Qatar, and has thus been engaging closely with the entire Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). Indeed, there is even talk of establishing a free trade agreement between the GCC and China.
After years of estrangement over Beijing’s treatment of its Uyghur population, China and Turkey have also been rapidly expanding ties in recent years. Last year Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan became the first Turkish head of government to visit Xinjiang Province in China in 27 years. While there he announced that Turkey would like to build an industrial park in the province, after Turkey and the Xinjiang government had explored the possibility in a joint working group established the year before. Total trade volume between Turkey and China reached US$24 billion in 2012, and Turkish officials have recently stated they want to see this increased to US$124 billion. Ankara is also expected to purchase an advanced air and missile defense system from China.
Notably, the rapid improvement in Sino-Turkish ties has coincided with a steep deterioration in Turkey’s relationship with Iran over the Arab Spring and Syrian civil war. As the past few years have underscored, Turkey and Iran are the regional states most likely to play a leadership role in the Middle East over the long-term. This will naturally put them at odds with one another. Iranian leaders understand this, and likely are following Turkey’s growing ties with China closely.
Ultimately, the biggest potential threat for Iran is that China’s dependence on Middle Eastern energy will force it to establish a military presence in the region. Whether that threat is actually realized is, of course, unknowable. But Beijing’s string of pearls strategy and plans to build multiple carrier strike groups are clearly geared towards giving future Chinese leaders the option, and if the decisions of past great powers are any guide, China may very well exercise it. After all, the U.S. was once content with dominating the Caribbean and was a leading opponent of European colonialism. Few would have expected it to become a perceived hegemon in the Persian Gulf.
If China does establish a military presence in the Middle East it will find itself directly at odds with Iran on one of the latter’s core interests – from long before the Shah through the present day, Iran has always harbored regional ambitions. Given its size, relative stability and coherence, in modern times Iran has always seen the presence of external powers in the Middle East as the main obstacle to it achieving these ambitions. Operating from Gwadar Port in southern Pakistan, a PLA Navy presence in the Persian Gulf would find itself even more in the crosshairs of Iran than the United States currently is. By necessity, Iran as a rising regional naval power and China as a global one would be destined to clash.
In short, Iran rightly considers the U.S. as its greatest security threat in the near-term. Given America’s desire to scale back its presence in the Middle East, and the possibility of an U.S.-Iranian rapprochement on the horizon, China’s expansion in the Middle East ultimately poses the greatest threat to Iran over the long term. The U.S. will undoubtedly share Iran’s concern with Beijing’s more assertive Middle East policy, and this could be an additional impetus for them to put aside their bitter rivalry.
Regardless if that occurs or not, it is clear that as China seeks to deepen its presence in the Middle East, it will increasingly have to contend with Iran.
Zachary Keck is Associate Editor of The Diplomat. He can be found on Twitter @ZacharyKeck.