The China-Iran-Russia Triangle: Alternative World Order?

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The China-Iran-Russia Triangle: Alternative World Order?

Insights from Benjamin Tsai.

The China-Iran-Russia Triangle: Alternative World Order?
Credit: Depositphotos

The Diplomat author Mercy Kuo regularly engages subject-matter experts, policy practitioners, and strategic thinkers across the globe for their diverse insights into U.S. Asia policy. This conversation with Dr. Benjamin Tsai – senior associate at TD International (TDI) and former U.S. government intelligence analyst on Northeast Asia and the Middle East is the 325th in “The Trans-Pacific View Insight Series.”

With Iran’s nuclear breakout timeline now at zero, analyze the view from Beijing and Moscow on Iran’s capability to produce nuclear weapons on short order.

China and Russia are still interested in reviving the 2015 nuclear deal, which will lift sanctions and lower tensions in the region. Beijing and Moscow have substantial economic ties with Tehran and stand to benefit from a normalization of trade. China and Russia are concerned about the destabilizing effects of a nuclear Iran and nuclear proliferation, so it is in both countries’ interests to have a deal with Iran. Furthermore, Russia and China need to balance their ties with Iran and their relationships with other Middle Eastern countries.

How are China and Iran benefiting strategically from Russia’s war on Ukraine?

I am not sure if Iran and China have benefited strategically from the war in Ukraine. The war has solidified the trilateral alliance as an anti-West bloc, but it is difficult to see how siding with Russia will benefit Iran or China in the long run.

Russia is reaching out to Iran in part to promote economic and energy cooperation in the face of international sanctions. They are the two most sanctioned countries in the world. There have been two high-level Russian visits to Tehran recently, but it is not yet clear what Moscow can offer Tehran. In fact, recent reports indicate that Iranian oil exports have decreased, as Russia is marketing its oil to non-Western countries at a deep discount. Chinese oil imports from Russia have increased this year, to a record level in May.

For China, the war in Ukraine has complicated the Taiwan issue. I do not think Russian aggression is accelerating China’s timetable to “resolve” the Taiwan issue. The opposite is the case. Beijing was surprised by the degree of unity between the U.S. and Europe and is concerned that the war has increased U.S. and international support for Taiwan. We are seeing more military cooperation between Washington and Taipei, drawing from lessons learned in Ukraine. This is one of the reasons why Chinese Defense Minister Wei Fenghei was so tough on Taiwan in his speech in Singapore in June. Beijing is dependent on Washington to rein in Taiwan so that the PLA does not have to take military actions before it is ready. I see Wei’s speech as coming from a place of vulnerability rather than strength.

The fact that the Russian military performed so poorly must have shocked Chinese leaders. Although the Ukraine war will not fundamentally change Beijing’s calculus toward Taiwan, it will prompt Beijing to reassess the feasibility of an invasion in the next several years. Pro-regime commentators are now arguing that the U.S. is trying to bait China into a war with Taiwan so it can punish China. These signals suggest that the Ukraine war has made China less confident about its options regarding Taiwan.

Explain how the positions of Beijing and Moscow on U.S. efforts to re-negotiate the JCPOA are undermining Washington and bolstering Tehran.

Beijing and Moscow do want a nuclear deal with Iran, but at the same time they have also tried to weaken Western efforts to put pressure on Iran to agree to more stringent terms. For example, Russia and China voted against an IAEA resolution censuring Iran for not answering questions about undeclared nuclear sites, but the resolution still passed. In response, Iran removed cameras that the IAEA had installed to monitor compliance.

Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi has tried to foster closer ties with Russia and China, seeing that they are willing to challenge the U.S.-led world order. Last year China and Iran signed a 25-year comprehensive strategic partnership, and China continues to buy Iranian oil despite sanctions. The Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), of which China and Russa are leading members, accepted Iran as a permanent member last year. Iran’s SCO membership will strengthen security and military cooperation with China and Russia.

Analyze the ways in which China, Iran, and Russia are making significant strides in upending and reshaping the global order.

Syria is a good example of Iranian and Russian interests coming together to keep a dictator in power and undermine U.S. objectives. China, Russia, and Iran oppose the U.S.-led world order and resent the use of sanctions as a diplomatic tool. Out of the three countries, China is in the best position to reshape the current global order. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said this in his China policy speech on May 26.

China wants to be the dominant technological power and challenge U.S. leadership in the world. In terms of soft power, Beijing wants to demonstrate that its political and social model is better for the developing world. For a while this was somewhat persuasive as COVID exploded in the West, but China kept it under control. We were all reading articles in the U.S. media about how China got it right and we got it wrong. But then the latest wave of Omicron hit China and exposed the weakness of Beijing’s “dynamic zero” policy and of Xi’s leadership. The economy is suffering, yet Xi seems to be doubling down. He looks increasingly inflexible and ideological. China’s media even citied a speech by Mao in 1953 to make the case that “dynamic zero” COVID is a policy of “greater benevolence.” The “Beijing Consensus” does not look so appealing now.

Identify the top three challenges and opportunities for U.S. leadership in effectively managing tensions with all three countries.

Reviving the nuclear deal with Iran is both a challenge and an opportunity. As I said before, the U.S., China, and Russia share some common ground on this issue.

For Russia, obviously the long-term challenge is to ensure that it is contained and cannot launch a war again in the future. China could potentially help the U.S. in deterring Russia.

We need to find a way to persuade Xi that it is not in China’s interest to support Russia. China has benefited from free trade, foreign investment, and a rule-based world order. From this perspective, China’s interests actually diverge from Russia’s. China’s strong alliance with Russia is at least in part based on Xi’s leadership style and his personal bond with Putin but is disconnected from China’s long-term interests.