Iran’s Lifeline and China’s Foothold: Examining the possible implications of the pending Sino-Iranian Comprehensive Strategic PartnershipAugust 7, 2020 in China, Iran, United States
On 11 July 2020, the Iranian government was reported to have approved a draft 25-year deal with China on economic, military and security cooperation. Titled the “Sino-Iranian Comprehensive Strategic Partnership”, Iranian officials have publicly stated that there is a pending agreement with China. A copy of the leaked 18-page document has been obtained by The New York Times labelled “final version” and dated June 2020. One Iranian official and several others who have discussed the agreement with the Iranian government have confirmed that it is the actual document waiting to be submitted to the Iranian parliament for approval. In China, officials have not disclosed the terms of the agreement and it is not clear whether Beijing has approved the deal . In the opening sentence of the document it states: “two ancient Asian cultures, two partners in the sectors of trade, economy, politics, culture and security with a similar outlook and many mutual bilateral and multilateral interests will consider one another strategic partners”. This Sino-Iranian pact throws Iran an economic lifeline at time as its economy is under severe pressure from United States sanctions. The pact also paves the way for Chinese influence to extend into the Middle East. The agreement may create further tension between Washington and Beijing, who are currently engaged in a trade war.
Components of the Partnership
The draft agreement, first proposed by Chinese president Xi Jinping in a visit to Iran in 2016, allows for 400 billion US dollars’ worth of Chinese investment in Iran in exchange for heavily discounted oil. China aims to invest in various sectors in Iran including oil and gas, telecommunications, banking, cyber security and transportation. Nearly 100 projects are cited in the deal including the construction of airports, high-speed railways and subways. Moreover, the deal proposes the development of free-trade zones in Maku, located in north-western Iran; in Abadan, where the Shatt al-Arab river flows into the Persian Gulf and on the Gulf island of Qeshm. The draft also proposes Chinese access to Jask, a major Iranian port located just outside the strait of Hormuz, the entrance to the Persian Gulf. The strait is a strategically important choke point through which one third of the worlds liquefied natural gas and a quarter of the world’s oil pass. China will also build the infrastructure for 5G telecommunications network in Iran in addition to offering the new Chinese Global Positioning System to help the Iranian government in asserting greater control over cyberspace. The draft agreement describes deepening military and security ties, calling for joint military exercises, joint research and weapons development in addition to intelligence sharing. This military and security cooperation, according to the draft, will be in place to fight the “lopsided battle with terrorism, drug and human trafficking and cross border crimes”. The draft also allows for 5000 Chinese security personnel in Iran to protect Chinese projects.
Benefits to Iran
If implemented, the agreement gives Iran a critical lifeline. US president Donald Trump has been waging a maximum pressure campaign on Iran’s economy since 2018. Trump’s administration has threatened to sanction countries in Europe and elsewhere who buy oil and other exports from Iran. Trump said the campaign was aimed at eliminating the threat of Tehran’s ballistic missile program, to halt its terrorist activities around the world and to stop its “menacing activity across the Middle East”. Although Trump’s campaign against Iran has not achieved these objectives, it has pushed Iran deep into recession. Iran’s economy was expected to contract by 7.1 percent in 2019 according to the United Nations and by 9.5 percent according to the International Monetary Fund. The IMF estimated that Iran’s reserves of foreign currency have been reduced to 86 billion, 20 percent below their level in 2013. Oil exports have plunged since the US began imposing sanctions again in 2018. The COVID-19 outbreak, the worst in the Middle East, and rising tensions with the US have put further strain on Iran. Thus, the agreement alleviates a great amount of economic hardship from the Islamic republic.
Benefits to China
The most obvious advantage this agreement provides for China is discounted oil. China obtains 75 percent of its oil from abroad and is currently the world’s largest importer of the natural resource at 10 million barrels a day. Iran also provides an additional terrestrial route for China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), the ambitious global infrastructure development strategy Beijing adopted in 2013. However, trade with Iran has not been a priority for Beijing in recent years. China invested less than 27 billion dollars in Iran from 2005 to 2019. Annual investments have dropped every year since 2016. In fact, China has invested significantly more in Arab Gulf countries compared to Chinese investments in Iran. Furthermore, for years China has mostly abided by US sanctions showing that Beijing prioritised trade with the US over ties with Iran. This particular agreement between Tehran and Beijing was proposed only after the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action was signed. The JCPOA is an agreement between Iran and major powers including the US to limit Iran’s nuclear capacity in return for lifting sanctions. Therefore, it is possible that China is eyeing other benefits of the deal in addition to its economic dimension.
For instance, this deal possibly allows China a potential foothold in the Middle East, a US dominated area of the world that is becoming increasingly vital to Beijing. About 40 percent of China’s energy needs are imported from the region. Thus, Beijing has significantly increased its economic, political and, to a certain degree, security footprint in the region in the past decade. China became the biggest trading partner and external investor for a significant number of Middle Eastern countries including Iran. Beijing currently participates in anti-piracy and maritime security missions in the Arabian Sea and the Gulf of Aden and maintains a military base in Djibouti for such activities. Beijing has increased mediation efforts in crises in the region such as Syria and Yemen. China has conducted joint naval exercises with Iran on three occasions beginning in 2014. China’s energy needs push the country to have a greater presence in the Middle East. Iran is the only major oil rich country in the region not influenced by Washington, which presents an obvious opportunity for Beijing. The Sino-Iranian agreement could provide Beijing with a greater security role to protect its commerce and energy supply in Iran and the Persian Gulf. For example, access to the major Iranian port, Jask, gives Beijing a strategic vantage point in an area where most of the world’s oil transits and has been the strategic preoccupation of the US for decades. The US Navy’s fifth fleet is headquartered in the Kingdom of Bahrain, not far from the strait of Hormuz. China has constructed a series of ports along the Indian ocean creating refuelling and resupply stations from the South China sea to the Suez Canal. The ports are commercial in nature but also potentially have military value. For example, Beijing has access to ports in Sri Lanka and Pakistan which are widely considered to be potential foot holds for Chinese military presence.
Impact on relations with US
The pact could also have significant implications for Sino-American relations, potentially creating dangerous flashpoints within their deteriorating relations. The US’s 2018 National Security Strategy identifies China as an adversary and depicts the country as a “revisionist power”. On 23 July 2020 the US ordered the closure of the Chinese consulate in Houston, Texas. China retaliated by closing down a US consulate in south-western China. The US state department warned that China would be undermining its own stated goal of promoting stability and peace by defying US sanctions and doing business with Iran. The implementation of this deal could signal Beijing’s frustration with Washington. In 2018 the US started a trade war with China imposing sweeping tariffs on Chinese goods to which Beijing retaliated. The US started a major campaign against Huawei, a major Chinese telecommunications company, barring it from involvement from 5G development in the US. Washington also attempted, without much success, to persuade other countries follow suit. It is likely that Washington will further sanction Beijing if this agreement is implemented. It is also very likely that China will retaliate in like. Sino-American relations are likely to continue to sour over China’s deepening ties with Iran.