China-Iran Strategic Partnership: Implications for India

China-Iran Strategic Partnership: Implications for India

By Dhnyanada Dhote* |

CACS – The signing of a strategic pact between China and Iran, for almost 25 years that will cover Trade, politics, energy, and culture, has created havoc in nearly all the key regional players in the Middle East and Asia region. The move is bound to elevate the Chinese attempts in establishing its strong foothold in the region and boost both China and Iran’s quest for regional dominance. The move was first proposed by Chinese President Xi Jinping’s official state visit to Iran way back in 2016, shortly after signing of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).

According to the details mentioned in the deal, China is expected to invest in Iran in the sectors of banking, telecommunications, infrastructure development and military cooperation, whereas China is assured to receive its assured Oil supply source for almost 25 years, at a very subsidized rate. Iran, already a part of Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in September 2019, is ready to receive almost $400 billion worth of investments, which is bound to act as a much needed economic lifeline, under the Rouhani administration, struggling to juggle between the U.S Imposed Sanctions while struggling to establish itself as a key player in the region.

China-Iran deal is also interpreted by the analysts as a major threat to Washington’s efforts to curb Iran’s Nuclear ambitions and to stabilise the region, by democratising the regimes. Iranian authorities had hoped that the Comprehensive Strategic partnership (CSP) will help deepen the partnership between both China and Iran. The leaked documents also highlighted the Iranian Authorities’s frustration regarding the weakness of its bilateral relations with China, in comparison with its neighbours.

The Middle east and Asia have become the battle field and the lab for experimentation, amongst the ongoing US-China tussle for global dominance. With  Trump Administration announcing its decision to withdraw its troops from Afghanistan and other military bases in the region, this provides adequate room for China to fill the void, and improve its presence in the region. Iran, due to its relative backwardness in the region, might prove to be a breeding ground for rising frustrations against the West, due to its initial abandonment of the Iranian market, post the imposition of the multilateral sanctions in 2008, which might further incline Iran towards China, and is a classic case of failure of Trump Administration’s “Maximum Pressure” policy.

China’s Interests in Iran and Middle East:  

The most important factor guiding the China-Iran relationship is China’s growing energy demands to sustain its domestic growth. The country with largest population is currently the largest importer of oil and petroleum from the Middle East. China wishes to keep the ball rolling and establish an assured energy supply for the country. This is also the key component of China’s Resource Diplomacy campaigns to provide immense economic, political and military aid from the countries it seeks to extract resources from. China’s policy of Non interference in the domestic politics, backed by the notion of respecting Indigenous sovereignty, and providing assistance to strong, infamous Authoritarian regimes in the region, known for Human Rights violations and undermining the principle of Democracy, makes its assistance very lucrative. Chinese policy of “Developmental Peace” (Economic Prosperity is the sole force guiding the stability and peace in the county, rather than democracy) over “Democratic Peace”, provides ample legitimacy to the authoritarian regimes to accept the economic aid at cheaper rates. China’s economic aid also proves to be extremely important for Iran to survive.

Secondly,  relationship is also guided by China’s quest of territorial security. China desperately wants to maintain extremely good relations with its territorial neighbours, to maintain stability in its border provinces. China’s 2015 paper on “ Vision and Action on Joint Building of Silk road and Economic Belt and 21st Century Maritime Silkroad” offers insights on China’s vision for Middle East region. The paper focuses on Energy security, Infrastructure, trade, and rapid investment in Middle East, but finds no mention of Security Cooperation, thus, China is extremely carefull to not involve itself in the domestic affairs, under the garb of West’s “Responsibility to Protect” (R2P). China’s “Digital Silk Road” too, proves to be extremely useful in formulating strong allies in the region. The BeiDon Satellite Navigation System is conviniently used across Middle East. Chinese Company Huawei has also partnered with telecom companies in Bahrain, Egypt, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and UAE for building infrastructure for 5G network. “Industrial parks” in the region, also promotes better inter-port connectivity.

China through its key projects like BRI, SCO, AIIB, ADB, BRICS provides a means of legitimizing its motives while simultaneously transforming itself into a global power.

The shipping lanes, in and around Iran, are also quite crucial to maintain its assured supply of resources, and thus in the need to protect it, China has begun rapid militarization of its bases in Djibouti and Gwadar, cruicial miltary chokepoints in the Strait of Hormuz and Bab-el Mandeb. This rapid militarization and increasing Naval presence,  if not checked will prove to be extremely problematic not only for India, but also for US, who seek to protect its interest in the region.

 Iran also proves to be an very solid Anti-American Base for China. However, whats ironical is that, Tehran, who claims to be the sole defendor of Muslim rights, conviniently decides to stay silent on the issue of Human Rights violations and mass de-radicalization camps for Uyghur Muslims in China’s Xinjiang. Thus proving that ideology definitely takes back seat when the country is in crisis.

West has been extremely  apprehensive regarding China’s approach in the Middle East and especially in dealing with Iran, as China has defied every single principle that West envisioned for the Middle East. US has time and again called China a “Free Rider” due to adoption of its “Sit atop a mountain and watch the tigers fight” concept, and not playing an active role in easing out the political tensions in the region. China is an economic giant but a political dwarf in the region. West has also been apprehensive regarding China undermining West’s efforts to democratize and liberalize the authroitarian regimes in the region.

Implications for India:

China-Iran’s growing interdependence is a matter of grave concern for New Delhi. India’s ambitious Chabahar Port in Iran is seen as a major connecting bridge between Central Asia, Afghanistan, Iran and is also seen as a counter-balace for Pakistan’s Gwadar Port, a part of China’s ambitous China-Pakistan Economic Cooperation (CPEC). With just 172 kms apart, they are often seen “sister ports”. Iran has often claimed that lack of funds, diplomatic stress and international sanctions, has led to the Iranian government undertaking some projects that might be hazardous to India’s intersts in the region. For example, Iran has decided to built the rail line connecting Chabahar port Zahedan on the Afghan Border, citing lack of funds from the Indian side.

The developement of Chabahar port has also faced severe diplomatic, financial, and political backlash from the likes of Iran and India, and under the severe stress from United States due to its sanctions on Iran. Chabahar, however, stands as a gateway to Central Asia for India. In february 2019, first batch of loads moved to Afghanistan from Chabahar, highlighting the economic use of the post for greater stability in Afghanistan. With Chabahar being just one of few international trade linkages with Afghanistan, US sanctioning India, for its competition, might have opposite repercussions than expected by Trump administration, who is currently negotiating peace deals and handing over the government to Taliban, post the withdrawal of its troops from Afghanistan. Sanctions over Chabahar Port, is bound to affact India’s interest in Afghanistan.

India-Iran relations have been very tumultous in the past. With US forcing India to end its relations with Iran, as a key pre-requisite for formalizing the US-Indo Nuclear deal, and India simultaneously voting against Iran in 2005, in International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), on the implementation of non-proliferation leading to severe sanctions on the Islamic Republic. Severe restrictions also earlier forced India to restrict its oil imports, severly affecting oil prices in India. Given the closeness between China and Pakistan, addition of Iran to the equation will definitely cause great threat to India’s regional security.

Conclusion:

China’s growing alliance with Iran, in the backdrop of recent Border disputes with China in Ladakh, and with Joe Biden’s victory, who’s all set to become the next US President, who at one point served  key role in formulating the JCPOA, will cause severe impact on India’s role as a key player in the region. India currently stands at the tripartite junction, where it has a difficult role of formulating a common consensus between the three key players in the region. Its hightime that India, revisit its neighbourhood policy, and the first step towards realizing this is by completing its halted infrstructure projects in its neighbourhood countries like Nepal, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Bhutan, Myanmar to regain some of its regional powers. Its high time India seek other alternatives to strengthen the relations with both United States and Iran, while striking a balance with China.

*Indian researcher, she earned her Masters in East Asian Studies from
University of Delhi.

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