Flags of China and Iran
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China’s rhetoric meets reality: Beijing caught out by the Iran crisis

That China has a stake in the Middle East became evident just recently, when the killing of an Iranian general by a US drone strike drew a very critical response from Beijing. However, wary of further antagonizing the United States and prolonging their trade dispute, China refrained from taking concrete action to support Tehran. Faced with the choice between supporting its ally Iran or staying out of the fray, Beijing chose the status quo, says MERICS analyst Helena Legarda.

The killing of Iranian general Qassem Soleimani by a US drone strike on January 3rd drew strong reactions from Beijing, which condemned the attack as an “abuse of military force” by the United States. However, China held back from supporting Tehran in any more active way. The PRC leadership’s response shows the pressures it faces, torn between supporting Iran and placating the United States. It wants to keep Iran onside as a source of oil, and a willing partner in the expansion of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) while limiting Iran’s own nuclear program. Yet China also needs US goodwill to end the damaging trade dispute. Despite Beijing’s rhetoric, the US-Iran crisis serves as a reminder of the limitations of China’s narrative and geopolitical ambitions. Beijing faced a choice between supporting its ally by getting more involved in an already tense region or preserving stability by staying out of the fray. It chose the status quo.

The state of China-Iran relations: Increasingly close ties

China’s footprint in the Middle East has expanded rapidly in recent years. China has taken advantage of the United States’ gradual withdrawal from the region to step up its involvement, though it previously had very limited ties there and preferred to avoid the many regional conflicts and complicated internal politics. Given China’s goal of becoming a global power by 2049, Beijing’s interests in the region lie in a stable Middle East. China needs regional stability to expand its Belt and Road Initiative and protect its existing investments, access the region’s energy and other resources, and deal with terrorist threats. The Middle East is becoming increasingly important to Beijing’s geopolitical ambitions.

Iran serves as a perfect example of China’s expanding regional engagement. Tehran has increasingly turned to Beijing for support in its long-running conflict with the US. China remains Iran’s largest trading partner, and it has made BRI-linked investments there, mostly in the transport and energy sectors. China has also been vocal in its support for the Iran nuclear deal, vowing to uphold it even after the United States withdrew from the pact. China’s oil imports from Iran have fallen sharply as a result of US sanctions.

However, the two countries maintain close political and military ties. In 2019, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif made five visits to Beijing, and President Xi Jinping held a bilateral meeting with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani in June 2019 on the sidelines of the Bishkek Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) summit. China is also among the top three arms suppliers to Iran, according to SIPRI data, exporting weapons worth about USD 270 million to Iran between 2008 and 2018. The first trilateral naval exercise between China, Russia and Iran was held in the Gulf of Oman in December 2019.

As a result of this close relationship, Beijing has been vocal in its support for Tehran when it comes to its relationship with the United States and the future of the Iran nuclear deal. Just three days before the killing of Qassem Soleimani, for example, and just days after the conclusion of the trilateral naval drill with Russia, Iran’s Foreign Minister Zarif was in Beijing to meet with his Chinese counterpart, Wang Yi. During the meeting, Wang Yi adopted an unusually blunt tone, criticizing the US for unilaterally withdrawing from the nuclear deal, shirking its international obligations and exerting maximum pressure on Iran. Wang said US conduct was “the root cause of the current tension over the Iranian nuclear issue.”

China’s response to the crisis: Strong condemnation of US actions

China’s strong reaction to the United States’ killing of Qassem Soleimani was unsurprising, given its close ties with Tehran and its interest in regional stability. An initially pro-forma position became sterner over the following days. China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs first reacted by condemning the use of force in international relations, urging the US to show restraint and respect Iraq’s sovereignty. Wang used stronger language in a phone call with Zarif, saying that the US “military adventurism” violated basic norms of international relations and would aggravate regional tensions. Wang vowed that China would play a constructive role in maintaining peace and security in the Middle East. Beijing has also emphasized its intention to coordinate with Russia to continue to uphold the Iran nuclear deal.

Official Chinese media questioned the US justification for the attack, dismissing the possibility of self-defense given no attack from Iran was imminent. Xinhua’s commentary focused extensively on the November 2020 US presidential election as the most likely underlying reason why the Trump Administration decided to take out Soleimani. Reports argued that Soleimani’s death would give President Trump a foreign policy victory that he sorely needs for the upcoming election.

China’s official media also refrained from any open criticism of Iran’s response after Tehran launched missiles against bases housing US troops. Instead, some articles praised Iran’s restraint. State-owned media was also quick to reassure the Chinese public the PLA has the capacity to deter and divert similar drone attacks.

Social media users mostly kept to the official line, criticizing the US for unilateral action and praising the PRC government’s ability to protect Chinese citizens. Although calling for a negotiated resolution to the conflict, many posts struck a militaristic tone by ascribing Iran’s vulnerability to such an attack to its lack of nuclear weapons – a problem that China does not have.

Despite its forceful rhetoric, Beijing did not take any concrete action to support Iran. It neither offered to mediate nor tried to raise the issue in the UN Security Council – both things that China did do in support of Pakistan after India’s elimination of Kashmir and Jammu’s special status, for example.

Rhetoric meets reality: Unwillingness to take on responsibilities in the Middle East

China’s growing involvement in the Middle East over the last few years has led to predictions that the Trump Administration’s withdrawal from some US commitments there could provide an opening for China. There have been suggestions that China could fill the power vacuum and might eventually replace the US as the region’s major political and economic player, and also with regard to security matters.

Beijing itself has stoked this narrative through its rhetoric about China’s goal of becoming a global power and a global defender of multilateralism, free trade, peace and stability in the face of an increasingly destabilizing United States.

However, China’s response to the killing of Soleimani reveals the limits of Beijing’s rhetoric and ambitions. In dire need of US goodwill in order to conclude trade negotiations for a phase 1 deal to cool their trade war, China limited itself to verbal condemnations of US actions.

The incident serves as a reminder that despite Beijing’s grandstanding and rhetoric about its ambitions to be a global power, China is currently neither willing nor able to take on the US’s responsibilities nor to actively contribute to maintaining the region’s security. It wants a stable Middle East where it can continue to trade and invest without shouldering the responsibility of securing it itself. Instead, it prefers a free ride on the United States’ security guarantees.

Beijing’s unwillingness to step up to the plate may be particularly evident in the Middle East, due to the region’s many complex and politically charged disputes, with which it has little to no experience. However, the tension between China’s rhetoric and the reality of its actions exists worldwide.

This blogpost is also the focus topic of the China Global Security Tracker covering July to December 2019.