China has much at stake in the US-Iran conflict. But in the long term, Trump's tactics will once again play into the hands of China, which will present itself as a constructive world power, says DW's Frank Sieren.
Like the rest of the world, Beijing was forced to look on idly as US President Donald Trump ordered the killing of Iranian General Qassem Soleimani last Friday. Even the Iraqi government in Baghdad, which considers Iran an enemy, called on the US to withdraw. On Tuesday night, Iran responded by launching missile attacks on US bases in Iraq.
For now, the situation seems to be, if not de-escalated, at least not re-escalated. But the stakes in the Middle East are also high for China now. As the country with the second-highest oil consumption in the world, it sources a good 50% of its imports from the region. Although Iran is ranked only seventh in the list of oil exporters to China, it has become a close economic and diplomatic partner of Beijing's in recent years. China is also Iran's largest trading partner. China's investments in Iran are also rising steadily, amounting to over $27 billion (€24.3 billion) between 2005 and 2018. Last summer, the two governments agreed that China would invest $280 billion in Iran's energy sector and $120 billion in its infrastructure and manufacturing sector over the next 25 years. In return, Beijing would receive cheaper oil as well as other benefits. The idea is also that the transactions be conducted in Chinese yuan or Russian rubles, as Russian companies will also be involved.
Iran a key player on 'New Silk Road'
Iran is playing an increasingly important role for China's "New Silk Road." One of the most important axes of the geostrategic project of the century leads from China to Turkey, via Pakistan and Iran, and then from Istanbul to the Greek port of Piraeus. Not far from the Pakistan-Iranian border and the Strait of Hormuz, through which 40% of the world's oil transports pass, lies the deep-sea port of Gwadar. In future, the idea is that this be used to transport oil and goods directly to China via an economic corridor in Pakistan. Pakistan shares a common border with both Iran and China, while goods still have to cross three Central Asian countries to get to China via the northern route.
The Chinese government is keen to prevent any US intervention from destabilizing the region further or even triggering an open war. Donald Trump is certainly not a great geostrategist with utmost diplomatic sensitivity. but he surely knew that a military strike against Iran would also affect the Chinese, and he was probably quite pleased about this.
Beijing's strategy in the Middle East has long been to act as a counterbalancing force on Tehran — with an interest in business, but none in military adventures. However, with the deterioration of US-Chinese relations since Trump's inauguration, Beijing has shifted its focus and is now making increasingly targeted attempts to position itself as a partner and counterweight to US claims for hegemony.
China and Iran deepen 'strategic relations'
It was only at the end of December that Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif met his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi in Beijing to "further deepen strategic relations." This was the fourth high-level meeting within a year. The two countries are also moving closer together militarily: China, which has supplied Iran with weapons for years, just held a joint four-day naval maneuver with Russian and Iranian forces in the Gulf of Oman. The Chinese Ministry of Defense described the exercises simply as a "normal military exchange" between the three armies. Iranian Admiral Gholamreza Tahani put it more clearly and said that it was to show "that Iran cannot be isolated."
The fact that there is some truth to this is also shown by the discussion about the Iranian nuclear deal which Tehran, pushed into a corner by the military strike, has now effectively scrapped. Negotiated in 2015 between Iran and the UN veto powers US, China, Russia, France and Britain, as well as the EU, it was also aimed at curbing Iran's growing supremacy in the region. Many celebrated the deal as a diplomatic success. Never before had China and the EU, but also Russia, cooperated so closely as when it was a matter of convincing the then-US President Barack Obama that a deal with Iran was good for world stability. Germany's Foreign Minister of the time, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, and China's Foreign Minister Wang Yi also played an important role.
Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif and his Chinese counterpart, Wang Yi (r.), have met frequently in recent years
The 'worst deal ever'
Trump saw things differently, however, and in May 2019 he withdrew the US from what he described as the "worst deal ever." The EU refused to go along with his sanctions and his strategy of "maximum pressure." Germany too had a greater political overlap with China than with the USA on this matter. Now, however, German politicians are hesitant to state clearly that Trump's policies do not correspond to our interests and tradition.
At least Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif has announced that Iran will return to the negotiating table if all parties — including the US — commit to the nuclear agreement and Washington lifts its sanctions. The Chinese Foreign Ministry agreed that the deal was an "important pillar" in containing the global proliferation of nuclear weapons and guaranteeing stability and peace in the Middle East. All parties are of course well aware that Trump will not comply. It is more important for him to appear as a determined statesman in the US presidential election campaign and to distract from problems such as the ongoing impeachment proceedings. It is a risky and short-sighted game, which plays into Beijing's hands, as have so many of his actions since taking office.
Beijing: The constructive voice of reason
China can now once again present itself in Iran and on the world stage as a constructive voice of reason: Many countries, particularly those which are emerging, prefer China's "Belt and Road" initiative to the US' "bomb-and-raid" tactics. The US' liquidation of a high-ranking official, which is more than questionable under international law, and Trump's nefarious announcement to bomb cultural sites in Iran if necessary, make China — despite its own human rights violations —appear a moderate world power that is primarily concerned with multipolar stability. China is particularly credible considering it has itself recently been a victim of the US world power claims.
"Power politics is always resented and short-lived," Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Geng Shuang recently said. He knows that while the US gambles away its international credibility with bellicose rhetoric and costly conflicts that further split the international community, China's room for maneuver is growing. Any power vacuum left behind by the US will immediately be filled by China. Without much fuss.
Frank Sieren has lived in Beijing for over 20 years.