By Saeed Mohammadian
More than four decades have passed since the establishment of official political relations between Iran and China. Although these effective players in East and West Asia have had longstanding relations as old as the history of the Silk Road, political and economic relations between the two countries have been sometimes criticized by Western observers and analysts. Therefore, many analysts, including in Iran, have summarized political and economic relations between the governments of Iran and China, especially during the past 10 years to widespread presence in the Iranian markets of Chinese consumer goods, which have been mostly characterized by their low quality, and China’s abstinence from vetoing anti-Iran sanctions at the United Nations Security Council. In doing so, they have accused Iranian government’s officials of having fallen in China’s trap and have even went as far as accusing Iran of becoming politically and economically dependent on China.
In reality, however, relations between Iran and China cannot, and should not, be analyzed within framework of unilateral critiques and analyses that believe these relations are marked with Iran’s need and dependence on China and China’s opportunism on the opposite side. The main factor that has helped Iran and China maintain their relations in a stable situation based on respect for each other’s national sovereignty, is lack of interference in each other’s internal affairs, pursuing independent foreign policy approaches, a partnership defined on the basis of mutual relations, and cooperation based on “common needs and opportunities” model. All these issues have caused Tehran-Beijing relations to enjoy a unique quality as a result of which they cannot be compared to Iran’s relations with other big powers, including Western powers. As a result, these two kinds of relations cannot be even assessed on the basis of a similar model.
China, is an emerging Asian power, which was the world’s second biggest economy and has been the world’s biggest importer of crude oil in 2014. A year before that, in 2013, China was recognized on top of the world trade with a total trade volume of 4.2 trillion dollars, thus surpassing the United States. At present, China is the foremost trade partner of more than 130 countries in the world. Therefore, some domestic critics of Iran’s relations with China should be reminded of the fact that at present, China is the biggest importer of Iran’s crude oil and was the first trade partner of the country in 2013 with a total trade volume of USD 50 billion. These relations neither indicate that China is an opportunistic country trying to make the most of unjust sanctions imposed by the Western countries against Iran, nor do they reflect Iran’s economic dependence on China. On the contrary, they are a reflection of the “relative advantage” logic of the economics according to which each one of these countries is pursuing its own economic strategies on the basis of its current needs as well as the economic outlook of its own and the other country.
Of course, the complaints of that group that is critical of the current situation of Tehran-Beijing relations cannot be totally dismissed as baseless. This group expects China, as a global heavyweight and an effective independent player which has great influence in international politics to play a more axial and effective role under the present conditions of international community in order to bring more balance to international competitions. It should be noted that, as a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, China has greatly increased its capacities to play a responsible role in regional and global developments during past years in proportion to its rising political and economic position. As a result, during past years, China has not only been trying to take more responsibility with regard to regional and international developments, but has been also trying to play a more proactive and high-profile role in those issues and regions that are directly related to the country’s national interests and security. During these years, China’s dependence on imported oil from the Middle East has been increasing, as the Middle East oil accounted for 60 percent of China’s energy needs in 2013. At the same time, Chinese leaders have been concerned about the spillover of insecurity from their western neighbor, Afghanistan, into western provinces of China. In the meantime, separatist forces in the western Chinese province of Xinjiang have been establishing ties with some terrorist groups in the Middle East, including the ISIS and al-Nusra Front. As a result of all these developments, China is expected to enter a new phase in which it will be playing a more effective role in international system, especially in the Middle East region. Although conservatism and taking step by step measures have been among major principles of China’s foreign policy, current realities of the world, have forced China to adopt new policies.
Since the inauguration of Iran’s new administration, political relations between the two countries have been on the rise in an unprecedented manner. The amount of exchange of visits between the two countries’ high-ranking officials has greatly increased as has been the case with reciprocal political and economic exchanges between the two states. It would suffice to note that during the past 19 months, there have been three meetings between the two countries’ presidents while their foreign ministers have met five times. The presidents and foreign ministers of the two countries have also consulted over phone once. China’s President Xi Jinping noted during a visit to China by the Islamic Republic of Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani in June 2014 that relations between the two countries are strategic in nature. Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif also met and conferred with his Chinese counterpart on bilateral and regional issues in November the same year. Also, a member of the State Council of the People’s Republic of China met with Iranian officials in Tehran on foreign policy issues in December 2013, while in January the next year, a member of the political office of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China visited Iran to convey to the Iranian chief executive a written message from Chinese president along with his answer to an invitation by Iranian President Hassan Rouhani for a visit to Iran.
Now, after a recent visit to Iran by Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, bilateral relations between Tehran and Beijing have been progressing with more speed. There is no doubt that during this visit, both sides have talked about Iran’s nuclear case and security in Afghanistan as a common neighbor to both countries. Meanwhile, developments in the Middle East and the fight against extremism and terrorist groups is among other common areas in which both Iran and China have shared interests as both of them need to find an overarching and lasting solution to this issue. The successful model of cooperation between the two countries over the situation in Syria was a good sign of propinquity between their viewpoints and the existence of varied grounds for further collaboration on other regional developments.
Iran and China are regulating their bilateral relations on the basis of mutual interests and common cooperation grounds in all political, economic, security and defense fields. Therefore, there is no doubt that these relations will neither be influenced by a third country, nor will they be directed against any third country. Without a doubt, there are requirements for the full realization of strategic relations between Iran and China, so that relations between the two countries can be developed on the basis of a model of comprehensive partnership at a strategic level. Increased frequency of visits between high-ranking political officials of the two countries and signing of major agreements for the regulation of the two countries’ relations can be considered among major steps that will make these relations seem more tangible. If the recent trip to Iran by the Chinese foreign minister was aimed at paving the way for further meetings between the highest ranking officials of the two countries in short term, and formulation of a common plan of action over the medium and long terms, then the year 2015 will be a time for renewed regulation of relations between two great powers of the east, both with rich civilizational backdrops. Iran and China are two Asian countries that have coexisted peacefully for ages and the background of their relations is free from any hostility. As a result, the two countries are taking a step by step approach to formulating a model for overall strategic partnership. In this way, the expectations of domestic critics of these relations will be met once development of bilateral relations takes on more speed and the two countries take their cooperation in international developments to a whole new level.