By: Yasser Nazifi Gilavan and Hamed Vafaei

Will China Colonize Iran?

Saturday, September 5, 2020 - 16:40
YNG

Introduction: Since July, a plethora of positive and negative comments and analyses have been rolled out in the media and cyberspace regarding Iran-China relations and the future of Tehran-Beijing ties, and specifically the 25-year comprehensive cooperation program between the two countries.

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But as always, there are some considerations which have to be borne in mind about the cooperation between the two countries. Eight key parts can be discussed in this regard: the first part is the nature of this program, the second part is Iran-China relations, the third part is the positions of different countries, especially the US, on these relations, the fourth part is Iran-China advantages for each other, and the fifth part investigates why, contrary to Western media claims, this cooperation program is neither colonial nor, as the US State Department puts it, “the Treaty of Turkmenchay II”. In fact, these claims are fundamentally false and unrealistic and have no purpose other than to influence the Iranian public opinion. In support of this view, we can point to the widespread republishing of these claims on social networks.

The 6th part will touch upon the literature of anti-Beijing hypes, while the 7th part is about the worries shared by the common enemies of Iran and China. The final part is focused on Beijing’s foreign policy and its strategy for dealing with the world.

Part I

1- The Iran-China Comprehensive Cooperation Document is a program. This document is neither an agreement nor a treaty nor anything else. If we want to analyze and evaluate it, we ought to consider a couple of issues. The first dimension to the issue is the Joint Statement issued by Iran and China during the visit of Chinese President Xi Jinping to Iran five years ago. Contrary to what is claimed that this program is the direct result of US’ unilateral and hostile approaches undertaken by the Trump administration, it should be said that the fundamentals of the program date back to a time before Trump’s entrance to the White house; the last year of Barack Obama in office. In 2015, when the Chinese president visited Tehran, Iran and China upgraded their relationship to a “Comprehensive Strategic Partnership”. These new arrangements are based on three pillars: partnership, comprehensiveness and strategy. When 2 countries define a long-term, strategic relationship, they should plan for it. For this very same reason, Iran and China, from the very beginning in the joint Statement issued in Tehran, considered some of their own considerations and defined a 25-year plan to let themselves have a time for working out the details of the areas of cooperation. The program was supposed to be laid out by the two sides but for some reasons it took some time till 2020. Recently, the program was presented to the Chinese side by Iran, and the Chinese side has not yet approved it. Accordingly, it can be said that what has been published in the cyberspace and in the media under the title of Iran-China Cooperation Program is surely worthless and unfounded. Also, the Iranian Foreign Ministry has not approved it, because it is a bilateral program and requires approval from both sides.

2- The Iran-China Cooperation Program is a roadmap to lay out further details about the preliminary agreement enshrined in the Joint Statement of 2015. The document covers bilateral planning in all areas, including education, energy, economics, trade, culture and even student exchange programs. In addition to what originally was meant to be stipulated in the program, now an issue of prime importance is the program’s relation to the "One Belt-One Road" initiative. The super-giant project was first made public by President Xi of China in 2013, and today it overshadows all Chinese relations.

Part II

3- Five years ago, Iran and China reached the conclusion that their relations should be based on bilateral partnership, strategic values and comprehensive inclusion. Partnership means that these relations are not competitive, because Iran and China are not rivals in the international arena. At the moment, Iran-China relations are not strategic, because our people, experts and even our officials do not know China. Having mutual understanding is a requirement when 2 countries are after long-term expansion of ties. In the current situation, according to official statistics from Chinese sources (Customs and the Ministry of Economy), the level of Iran-China relations has fallen significantly. China is Iran's largest trade partner and one of the most important countries in the international system. However, China’s relations with Iran have been directly undermined in recent months by the two problems of the COVID-19 pandemic and US’ unilateral sanctions. Last month, Iran's oil sales to China reached its lowest level since 2007. Iran-China trade relations have shrunk by more than 60%. Much of this trade decline has been due to plummeting Chinese imports from Iran.

Part III

4- The United States is an influential player wielding enormous influence on Iran-China relations. The US sanctions are damaging Iran-China relations, and the 25-year Cooperation Program between Tehran and Beijing does not mean the beginning of Washington's decline. Rather, the point is that China has segregated its relations with different countries. On the one hand, China has relations with Tehran's implacable foes, namely the Zionist regime, the United States and Saudi Arabia, while at the same time it is having close ties with Iran. However, the framework it has set for relations with Iran which is based on partnership, comprehensiveness and strategic concerns is progressive and reflects the position of the Islamic Republic in the eyes of Chinese officials. When a country like China, which is a permanent member of the United Nations’ Security Council and one of the key players in the world economy, concludes a 25-year plan with a country, it means that it is sure about prevailing stability and security in that country for at least the next two decades.

5- Iran and China have set out their relations based on a framework of mutual interests and international relations. China, as a country that considers itself a responsible player in the international arena, has maintained relations with Iran, refusing to succumb to Washington's unilateral actions. China recently stated that its relations with Iran are based on mutual interests and interests of the two countries and have nothing to do with international security. A Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesman used a Chinese-language allegory and told US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo that if you continue this approach, it is as if you want to fetch water from the river with a wicker basket.

6- The Comprehensive Partnership Document also emphasizes the issue of multilateralism, and naturally other countries can also benefit from this cooperation. For example, if a corridor is defined in Iran, the countries that are on both sides of this corridor will benefit from it, or if a route (rail, road or sea) is established between Iran and China, it will definitely lead to the development of countries along the path. This is a good thing, but there is a bad thing; at the tip of the arrow is the US which feels threatened by this cooperation. Iran and China have stated that they will do their job apart from US intervention, but the Americans will not sit idle. However, we must be careful that the Chinese do not have a direct confrontation plan with the United States, at least in the medium term, and do not seek the fall of the United States and Beijing is not for medium term after usurping Washington’s status as the major hegemon of the world. Beijing has neither the capacity nor the interest. The US presence in the top power reduces part of China's responsibilities. The Chinese definition of the future is a multi-polar world. In Sino-US relations, Beijing is by no means seeking to escalate tensions and replace the United States.

7- The US behavior in response to Iran-China relations can be analyzed from the Chinese point of view. The Chinese believe that the former US policy on China had changed years before and even before Trump took office; The Americans used to have a stick-and-carrot policy on China with oscillating between periods of hard encounters and soft policies. But the Chinese believe that after China's economic progress and the rise of its country in the international system, the United States came to the conclusion that China is a strategic threat; something that has been publicly stated in US national security documents. The Chinese see no need to tolerate the United States after the adoption of Washington’s hostile approach against Beijing. The American dagger has been sharpened against the Chinese, and its traces can be seen in the issues of Hong Kong, Taiwan and the events in the Muslim-populated regions of China. The most conspicuous of these tensions can be seen in the trade war between the US and China, which has entered a new phase. Now the important issue is that how China is approaching this war and what are Beijing’s counterattack strategies. Not seeking a direct confrontation, for now, the Chinese, have opted for a ping-pong policy rooted in ancient Chinese texts. They have a strategy which advises them to be as patient as possible against an enemy of great power till the time that it delivers the first blow. Since then, do it like tit for tat, hit it once if it hits you once, unless it will deliver you the second blow. Accordingly, in the trade war, immediately after the US imposed tariffs at two o'clock in the morning, the Chinese Department of Commerce published a list of tariffs on US goods and did not wait until morning. Or Beijing closed an American consulate immediately after Washington closed a Chinese one in the US. China holds that it is possible to have a win-win deal with everybody.

8- A noteworthy point about bilateral ties of Tehran and Beijing is that Iran will keep having constructive interactions with China, as long as the Islamic Republic is successful in using US’ hostile policies as a leverage to increase Washington’s international isolation. The JCPOA laid out a frame which further exposed US’ growing vulnerability and isolation. As long as Tehran follows the policy to show the unilateral nature of American sanctions and the bullying nature of Washington’s foreign policy against the letter of all international conventions and resolutions, China will keep supporting Iran. China considers itself as a responsible country based towards international treaties and frameworks, and will circumvent US’ unilateral sanctions so long as the international system is attesting Iran’s abidance to the rule of law and US’ disrespect for law and order.

Part IV

9- Given that the framework of relations between the two countries is a partnership, it is naturally beneficial for both parties. Sometimes one country invests in another country with no short-term or medium-term rewards, but Iran and China are participating in bilateral partnership because it has benefits for both sides. China has a long-term view of Iran in two areas; one is the issue of energy. As a source of sustainable energy for China, Iran is not dependent on any party. Concurrent with substantial decline in China’s imports of oil from Iran, released statistics show that China’s oil purchases from Saudi Arabia, Brazil and Russia have hit an all-time record. Here, it should be noted that Russia is in strategic rivalry with China in some areas. The Saudi side is also not a reliable source due to its relationship with and dependence on the United States. A memo from Washington will convince Riyadh to stop selling oil to Beijing. Brazil has the same situation like Saudi Arabia. Iran is the only country that China can count on. This is what the Chinese say. Another area of ​​Iran's geopolitics is its geographical and political position in terms of influence. Iran has an important position in West Asia and serves as a bridge between East and West Asia and Europe. Iran has long been a bridge between China and the Western world. Chinese goods all passed through the land of the Persians and reached the west. The same is true today, whether by sea or land. This is the Chinese view of Iran. But Iran’s negligence of the last couple of years has made the Chinese to expand their energy cooperation with the Central Asia. Central Asian countries are heavily influenced by Russia, and long-term cooperation with them is not in China's interests, while Iran can bring many benefits for China.

10- Iran's view of China, however, is comprehensive. China is an important country in the world of today and various countries have long-term relations with China. Having relations with China is so important that even Beijing’s enemies do not cut economic relations with this country. The major adversaries of China are those countries whose main economic partner is China. The United States is one of China's biggest partners and enemies. Saudi Arabia and the Zionist regime are ideologically opposed to China but have relations with Beijing. China is the factory of the world. When you talk about China, you are talking about a market with 1.4 billion people. For Iran, which is after a leap in domestic production, this market cannot be ignored. Iran is unaware of the Muslim-populated regions of China, but Turkey is working on them. There are provinces in China that have a population as nearly twice as Iran’s. We need Chinese technology in information technology (IT), artificial intelligence (AI), oilfield development and refinery-based equipment, aviation and automotive equipment. Currently, all countries in the world have an international space station, but China is building a national space station and has gone through one step after another. China, as an Eastern country, has never had hostile relations with Iran in the whole course of history.

Part V

11- There have been rumors in cyberspace that the 25-year Iran-China program may be colonial. This issue can be analyzed in several ways. Firstly, we have to consider that what has been pursued so far is titled as a "program" and a program can never colonize a country. A treaty may be colonial, but here we are talking about a plan which is on paper and there is no binding element in it urging for its implementation. The two parties do not make any commitments to each other in the program. A program is a step before setting out a roadmap and no country has ever been colonized by a roadmap. Imagine Iran and China want to sign an agreement to equip Iran's air fleet in accordance with one of the articles of one of bilateral deals which are themselves part of the 25-year comprehensive cooperation program, to let China export aircraft parts to Iran. To do it, firstly, a team from the Civil Aviation Organization of Iran should travel to China and negotiate with the Chinese parts provider. Once they have agreed, a text will be prepared. This text is signed by both parties and then executed. Then at that stage of the action it can be examined whether the 25-year plan has been whether to benefit or disbenefit of Iran. This is an overview of what will happen and how it works about this program in the future.

12- The second issue is that the program that is going viral online has not been written by the Chinese for Iran. If the Chinese had dictated it to Iran, Tehran would have said that maybe the Chinese want to colonize the Islamic Republic. The program, at the current stage of affairs, is a text that Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif has taken and proposed to China. Iran is waiting for the Chinese to comment on it. Unless we say that the Iranian Foreign Ministry wants to colonize its own country, all of the online arguments against this program are worthless. And if we believe in such a statement, then another problem arises. It is very unlikely that Iranians themselves give the Chinese a plan to let them colonize Iran. Naturally, Tehran is considering its own interests, and certainly the Chinese are also expected to have their own benefits from this program. If an agreement is of no benefit for China, then it is illogical for them to sign such a program. The Chinese are looking for a win-win interaction, and will not join in if their interests are not met. Neither are they afraid of Iran, committed to a holy cause for supporting Iran, feel a burden of responsibility towards Iran, nor shy to express their disagreements with Iran. They do not join in where China's interests are not served. They follow the same pattern in dealing with Saudi Arabia, the United States and other countries. Basically, all countries should follow the same approach.

13- The third issue is our perception of the Chinese system of thought. We need to be aware of the Chinese strategic vision on an international scale: what China intends in the medium term, not the long term. In the long run we do not know what will happen and maybe China will become a country like the United States. What this China, which has risen today and become a world power, will do if it becomes a superpower in the future is a question busying the mind of many specialists. How China will act in the medium term is now of prime importance for our discussion. If we study the main headlines of China's strategy for the world, China has no plans to become a superpower in the medium-term. China's plan is to become one of the world's most powerful poles. Until a few years ago, the Middle East did not play a significant role in the policy-making of Chinese officials. China has focused on Japan, South Korea, North Korea and Russia. These issues clarify China's view for us. Today, the Chinese are expanding ties with the West, and showing interest in a broader presence in the Middle East, a strategy which is supported by the Islamic Republic and Tehran is capable of helping Beijing in this regard. The Chinese have also a presence in Africa, but do these activities of them mean colonization? Such a thing cannot be inferred from when you look at Chinese leaders' views on the future of the world, although they may want to expand their influence. A rumor was spread in Iran that China wanted to buy the island of Kish or deploy 5,000 troops in southern Iran. If these questions could be answered that why this number of troops should be deployed or for what objective, then the masses and experts will easily discard this disinformation campaign. China has many more things to do in the islands under construction in the South China Sea, and in Africa.

14- There is a special way of deciphering events and developments in Iran, which is rooted in bitter history of the country at certain points in some sad chapters of the country’s past. Iran has had many colonial agreements with Britain, Portugal, the Tsars and the United States. There is no colonialism in the position that China has set for itself in the medium term. Of course, in the long run, the discussion is separate. In a multi-polar world, the form of colonialism that existed in the past is practically impossible. Multilateral relations are determined by relations between the two countries, such as the 25-year Iran-China program.

15- Relations with China enable Iran to diversify its foreign policy resources. The grand policy that has been proposed in the Islamic Republic under the title of turning to the East is a wise approach, but it should be noted that the goal is to look to the East and not to embrace the East. If Iran can wisely regulate its relations with China, it could prevent colonization in the long run, as it would diversify Iran's economic sphere and prevent it from relying on one side. The mistake after the signing of the JCPOA was that in some cases Iran ignored the East or paid less attention to it than the West and did not maintain the balance. If there is a balance between the East and West in relations, there is no way to be colonized. How will colonization take shape if Iran's economic relations are established simultaneously with France, Germany, Italy, Japan, South Korea, China and Russia? If a country starts imposing pressure, you immediately replace it with another country. If the western countries threaten you, you have the East, and if the East threatens you, you have the Western partners.

Part VI

16- Another issue that has to be borne in mind is the study of Westerners’ behavior after China’s efforts for strengthening ties with a country. In previous cases, whenever Beijing has tried to conclude long-term agreements with a country, Western media has started a smear campaign. You have to consider the anti-Beijing literature of the main news outlets of west who act as leverage in the bigger system of Western countries’ instruments of pressure in dealing with rival countries. The public opinion is poisoned by misinformation campaigns against China so that the local government is disabled to move forward towards Beijing.

Part VII

17- There is something very interesting in the claims made against Iran-China cooperation plan. Interestingly, what has been said to be the articles of the program are exactly representative of what the Westerners are afraid of. The worries of the common adversaries of Iran and China are reflected in the fake news. Westerners are frightened to see a bolder China in the Middle East and the Persian Gulf region. The west did the same when former Iraqi prime minister tried to bolster Baghdad-Beijing ties. The widespread street protests in Iraq were meant to make China escape from Iraq. Here, the same strategy is followed. The West is gravely concerned with the increase of military cooperation between Iran, China and Russia in the Persian Gulf and the Strait of Hormuz. To deter China from having military cooperation with Iran, western media try to convince the Iranian public opinion that Chinese military presence in the Persian Gulf is an example of selling your homeland territories to foreign countries. This is a wrong address which will busy the mind of the rank and order of the society to distract attentions from growing military presence of the West in the Persian Gulf.

Part VIII

18-Knowing what is the Chinese worldview and their traditional scriptures can be very helpful in understanding the overall strategy of Beijing in the international arena. The real agenda of Beijing for developing bilateral ties with different countries may be obscured by the fake agenda brought up by the adversaries of China. The real intention may not be the one that it seems at the surface. The real concerns of China should be understood from the Chinese point of view.

19- Diversification is a grand strategy of China in many areas. The routes for economic transportation, public transportation, food security, transportation security, and energy security are all expanded by Beijing in the last 3 decades. Beijing is exploring new transportation routes through Pakistan, the Central Asia and South Asia. China is ready for any scenario of adversaries like the US and India. So they are not solely dependent on the Indian Ocean to reach energy resources in the Middle East. The gas pipe from Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan is again for diversifying China’s access to energy resources to obviate dependence on Middle East energy resources.

20- Another grand strategy of China is in accordance with the principles of the international relations theories. The Chinese are playing a game of balance. Power equation in the international arena is a key for dealing with Western pressures, solving problems with neighboring countries, and managing the food needs inside the country. Beijing is doing its best to balance the equation between all of its friends and foes.

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