All these years, many analysts wondered why China was so tentative about expanding business and strategic links with Iran in a bigger and more transparent way that would convey its clear disagreement with the US policy on Iran. The US re-imposed sanctions after it pulled out of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) in 2018, but some short-term concessions were available to nations such as India and China that obtained much of their energy needs from Iran. India had its compulsions about adherence to US directives due to its emerging relationship with America. It needed that nation’s support for its technological development and other considerations, which have helped develop the emerging Indo-US strategic partnership and kept it on an even keel.
It seems the Chinese too had some compulsions and did not get their energy requirements from Iran to the extent they needed. China’s oil imports reduced almost six times over six months within 2019. As per the much-respected Singapore-based analyst James Dorsey, “Numerous agreements signed by Presidents Xi Jinping and Hassan Rouhani during the Chinese leader’s visit to the Middle East in 2016 would, if implemented, expand economic relations between the two countries by a factor of ten to $600 billion and significantly enhance military cooperation.” A natural surmise is that China yet lacked strategic confidence to implement those agreements in the face of US sanctions; recall that the Trump administration’s trade-related coercion was just about taking shape. Thus even though it is well known that Sino-Iran deliberations over these deals never ceased, something changed in Beijing’s approach in the emerging run-up to the post Covid-19 geopolitical order.
Unconfirmed reports about a freshly leaked draft 18-page agreement between Iran and China appear to indicate a move towards transformation of the strategic scenario in the Middle East, an area that has not received much Chinese attention except for its energy needs. The Chinese now seem more confident of defying US sanctions to pursue their own interests, as is evident from the nature of the impending deal that could be worth $400 billion over 25 years, including guaranteed supply of discounted energy.
While it is yet early to assume that the deal will go through, its deliberately leaked draft is being used to carry out strategic messaging, which appears to be China’s new way of conducting geopolitics. This messaging is being done through actions on multiple fronts—Hong Kong, Taiwan, South China Sea, Australia, India and now Iran. The opinion of analysts about China opening too many fronts and not being able to manage these to its advantage are being disregarded by Beijing with a belief that opportunities need to be seized to muscle a strong cumulative message of its position in the emerging world order.
The inputs of the impending deal may yet be uncertain and unconfirmed, but the deductions one can draw from it are many, especially in view of the voids that exist in the assessment of the geopolitics of the post Covid-19 world. It’s a clear indicator that the US attempt to shift the strategic focus of the world to the Indo-Pacific will be countered by China through triggering tension in West Asia by giving Iran a boost. That should have the US-Israel-Saudi combine worried. It should also put the European powers in a quandary since they had wished to see the JCPOA in place as a means to bring Iran out of isolation, cap its nuclear program and thus curb its alleged rogue status.
The feasibility of the axis China-Russia-Pakistan-Iran and perhaps Turkey emerging as an international grouping to counter a fully developed Quad of US-Japan-India-Australia becomes stronger. A push-pull between West Asia and the Indo-Pacific as theatres of tension could well be on the cards and would favour China. With Iran giving China a leg up on Chabahar, China’s maritime hold over the Northwest Indian Ocean will strengthen since this would add to its presence in Djibouti and Gwadar, although Chabahar would yet be only an economic facility and not a naval one. The potential of constructing a 70 km road link between Gwadar and Chabahar would extend the CPEC artery into Iran, although more road linkages would be on the cards through Central Asia.
A strong China-Iran link in the economic and strategic domains would definitely add substance to the Pak-Iran relationship, but Pakistan finds greatest benefit from its relationship with Saudi Arabia. It will straddle the two to draw maximum benefit for itself. The US effort at reduced focus towards West Asia in favour of the Indo-Pacific would once again need a rethink, something that has been a challenge in the last few years. The strategic orientation of the Sino-Iran equation with the proposed cooperation in the military domain to include joint training, weapon development and possibly intelligence sharing should force US reprioritisation.
Is India the loser in this emerging new great game? Despite various attempts to explain to Iran its US-oriented compulsions, India perhaps may have pushed Tehran’s patience over the hill. There is yet no clear indicator on India having lost its Chabahar opportunity, but the 600 km strategic Zahidan rail link project appears out of our hands, since Iran has decided to fund it itself. It could yet be Tehran’s way of a last push and test of New Delhi’s will during the remaining tenure of the current US administration.
A final decision, if at all, to keep New Delhi out would be advantage Islamabad, which viewed this project and the India-Iran-Afghanistan cooperation as an Indian attempt at manoeuvring access to Afghanistan and the Central Asian Republics. Denying India that overland access has been the core of Pakistan’s strategy, to prevent the former’s influence in its western and northern flanks.
While these developments are important for India to take stock of, with China opening another strategic front, it is the Ladakh frontier that needs all its focus for the moment to deny Beijing any moral advantage. Any display of weakness there will bring cascading Chinese efforts at more pressure points as part of their campaign of renewed strategic messaging.
Lt Gen Syed Ata Hasnain (Retd)
Former Commander, Srinagar-based 15 Corps. Now Chancellor, Central University of Kashmir