An Iranian perspective on how far China and Iran can take their defence ties.
There was a time when the title “the largest developing country in the world” meant only that China’s capabilities were surpassing those of its counterparts. Today, it means that China ranks second, only after the United States, in terms of power.
This March, Yang Jiechi, Senior Chinese Diplomat warned U.S. officials about China’s new position in the international community during a meeting in Alaska, saying that “the United States does not have the qualification to say that it wants to speak to China from a position of strength.”
The Islamic Republic of Iran considers China’s self-confidence and significant economic and military advances a sign of relative decline in the United States’ global domination. This is in line with Iran’s perspective that the right form of distribution of power in the world is a multipolar system.
Iran and China have long-standing ties that are free from the shackles of history, which has complicated Iran’s relations with Russia, Britain, and the United States. Accordingly, Iran has been unilaterally seeking to shape defence cooperation and achieve a strategic alliance with China since the Iran-Iraq war era in 1980s, though it has failed to gain China’s consent for several reasons.
Nevertheless, there is no doubt that the two countries’ situation and power have changed drastically today. Iran’s increasing influence in West Asia and its spreading missile deterrence in the Persian Gulf region, coupled with China’s increasing military and economic power around the world, have motivated the two countries’ domestic circles to design and implement a new and broader level of relations by consolidating military diplomacy in the form of strategic cooperation.
A New Direction for Defence Relations
During the last decade, regional and global developments have ushered China-Iran political and defence relations into a new era. Apart from the official announcement of a “Pivot to Asia” strategy by U.S. President Barack Obama’s first administration – which China interpreted as a strategic siege, causing the elites of the Chinese Communist Party to leave their defensive and conservative posture – Xi Jinping’s ascension as secretary general of the Communist Party and chairman of the Central Military Commission in November 2012 has been one of the main reasons for strengthening China-Iran military relations.
As part of the pursuit of the “Chinese Dream,” Xi seeks to strengthen international military cooperation. This strategy requires a turn in Chinese foreign policy from the traditional principle of peaceful rise (the so-called “keeping a low profile”) to an active policy (or “striving for achievement”).
The objective of consolidating the spirit of nationalism has also increased the role of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in China’s foreign policy.
The inauguration of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s moderate administration in 2013 and the signing of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) by Iran and the P5+1 in 2015 reduced Beijing’s concerns about entering defence cooperation with Tehran.
These events helped legitimise China-Iran political relations and removed the image of Iran as a security threat. Hence, a military memorandum was drafted immediately in October 2015 between the two countries, which was then replaced by a military agreement in November 2016.
The first meeting of the bilateral military commission of the two countries was held in Beijing in December 2017, which was followed by a second meeting in Tehran in December 2019. This is Iran’s second joint military commission with a foreign country, after Oman, and the first with a great power since the Islamic revolution in 1979. Upon the successful completion of JCPOA negotiations and formation of a favourable international atmosphere, Iran, formerly the 56th military partner of China, rose to the 23rd position.
The table below outlines the developments and the growing process of cooperation between the two countries in terms of military diplomacy since 2013.
Lasting Challenges & Constraints
An investigation into the overall Iran-China military diplomacy since Xi took office shows that, despite a rise in diplomatic relations and high-level meetings, this aspect of relations still faces many challenges and issues.
In fact, several barriers are causing the current swings and obstacles in China-Iran military diplomacy and the halt in formation of relationships based on real and comprehensive cooperation, even after the completion of 25-year road map of a comprehensive strategic partnership – which itself sparked heated discussions among opponents and proponents.
The following five factors help understand China’s limitations in strengthening military diplomacy with Iran.
Despite overlaps in the foreign policies of the two countries, there exist serious differences between definitions and practices regarding military diplomacy. For instance, following the macro framework for its military objectives, China is seeking to reduce the technological gap between its military and other great powers by 2049.
Accordingly, it seeks to promote the PLA into a world-class army in light of cooperation with great military powers and considers developing countries only as markets for marketing and commercialising its arms industry.
Therefore, despite an increase in diplomatic interactions between military commanders of the two countries, Iran is still not one of the first 20 priorities of China in military diplomacy. In addition, China seeks to improve its global image by 2035, using its military diplomacy as a supporting tool for its broader diplomatic agenda in foreign policy.
Iran, on the other hand, pursues military diplomacy with China with the twin objectives of “deterrence” (purchasing arms and transferring military technology) and “coalition-building” to confront the United States (i.e. outward balancing). Therefore, Iran is more interested in entering multilateral-diplomatic military blocs, such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation.
Meanwhile, the majority of Chinese political and military elites psychologically reject alliances and coalitions, even with Russia or Pakistan, because they generally approach high-level defence relations with great caution.
China’s support of the six resolutions of the United Nations Security Council against Iran from 2006 to 2010 indicates that China is not inclined to retreat from its role as a global actor. Meanwhile, China’s refusal to accept Iran as an official member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, despite Iran’s removal from Chapter VII of the Security Council in 2015 shows that Beijing is not ready to turn the SCO into an anti-American organisation.
Furthermore, from the Chinese point of view, alliances belong to the mentality of the Cold War era and they weaken the independence of Chinese diplomacy in the 21st century. Therefore, China restrains its military relations with revolutionary countries to a certain level.
The U.S. Factor
Chinese officials believe that ongoing hostility between Iran and the United States, as well as the failure of JCPOA, imposes extra costs on strengthening military relations with Iran. These challenges have both economic and security implications.
For instance, on October 18, 2020, the Iranian Foreign Ministry issued an official statement that under Security Council Resolution 2231, after 13 years, Iran was allowed to import and supply all types of conventional weapons internationally from that date on. Following this development, Iran was expected to be able to purchase some of its needed defensive equipment at least from its strategic partners, namely, Russia and China.
However, so far no such exchange has taken place, proving the lifting of the formal U.N. arms embargo virtually ineffective. The reason is executive order 13949 of the United States, issued on September 21, 2020, according to which “any party participating in supply, sales, or transfer of conventional weapons to Iran will be punished.” This has forced everyone, including China, to comply.
International Law Considerations
China determines its priorities in any military agreement with Iran based on its position as an international and responsible actor. Like Iran, China is often considered a revisionist state whose final goal is to overthrow the current international order to replace it with a new one.
However, China’s revisionist view mostly focuses on the areas of the current international system with poor performances and not the underlying principles.
As one of the permanent members of the U.N. Security Council and one of the founders of post-Cold War international order, China criticises U.S. unilateralism and exceptionalism while emphasising the need to respect international laws and treaties, as well as multilateralism.
In this regard, Chinese officials have always cited JCPOA as a successful example of multilateral diplomacy and a step toward strengthening the international non-proliferation regime.
At the same time, they see the maximum pressure campaign of Washington and its non-compliance with the Iran nuclear deal as a clear example of U.S. disregard for international regulations, which could ultimately undermine the international system as a whole and jeopardise international peace and security.
Therefore, from Beijing’s point of view, the first step for any comprehensive military engagement with Iran is the return of the United States to its obligations and the lifting of secondary sanctions.
Only then can China negotiate and reach an agreement with Iran on strategic and military issues. It can be said that when it comes to military diplomacy with Iran, China pursues the policy of “JCPOA first.”
Balance of Power in the Middle East
China is concerned about the weakening of Iran’s political system and defence power due to U.S. military and economic pressures, but it also takes into account the concerns of Iran’s rivals in the Middle East regarding the proliferation of nuclear weapons.
In other words, China is concerned that the acquisition of nuclear weapons by Iran will drastically shift the region’s balance of power in favour of Tehran, which could cause Iran’s neighbouring countries to panic, pushing them, in turn, into a nuclear arms race.
But China is also concerned that putting Iran under pressure to abandon its symmetric and asymmetric defence capabilities (i.e., its missile program and proxy forces) has severely upset the balance of power to the detriment of Iran and to the benefit of U.S. Arab allies. In fact, Beijing mainly supported Western efforts to reach a nuclear deal with Iran for these very same reasons.
Additionally, China believes that any diplomatic path that can provide reconciliation between Iran and the countries in the Middle East should be the result of direct contact and dialogue and not Western pressure.
The Chinese Five-Point Initiative to establish “collective security” in the Middle East should be regarded in this context. Therefore, any special and excessive attention in military and defence affairs paid to Iran by China disturbs Chinese balanced policy toward Iranian rival countries in the Middle East.
China’s Economic Interests
The real driver for China’s presence in the Middle East is its continued economic growth, which leads Beijing to seek secure access to Middle East energy resources. Thanks to the Belt and Road Initiative, China is now the largest investor in the region and the first trading partner in 11 Middle Eastern countries.
China has funded construction of ports and industrial parks in Egypt, Israel, Oman, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and even the small country of Djibouti.
The success of the BRI depends on the security of strategic lifelines, such as the Strait of Hormuz, the Sea of Oman, the Red Sea, the Bab al-Mandeb Strait, and the Suez Canal that are controlled by Middle Eastern countries.
Thus, China’s economic interests determine the scope of China’s comprehensive military diplomacy with Iran. Unlike the West and some Arab countries, China does not find development of Iran’s conventional military capabilities a threat to its interests.
In fact, China is pursuing economic benefits in military cooperation with Iran as well as its rivals in the Middle East. This helps explain China’s strong opposition to the U.S. extension of the arms embargo on Iran in 2020.
Similarly, the activities of Iran-backed groups in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon pose no threat to Chinese interests.
Therefore, Beijing refuses to pressure Iran to stop supporting these groups. Yemen may be the only exception, since China’s efforts to strengthen its permanent presence in Djibouti and the Bab el-Mandeb Strait – which was achieved with the cooperation of Saudi Arabia – run counter to Iran’s efforts to expand and strengthen its proxy network in that region.
The generous sale of advanced Chinese drones to the UAE and Saudi Arabia to target Iranian-backed forces in Yemen can be seen in this context.
On the other hand, from China’s point of view, increasing military ties with Iran also undermines Beijing’s efforts to expand economic influence and military cooperation with other countries in the region, notably Israel and the Gulf Cooperation Council.
Few other countries can simultaneously have good relations with Iran, Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the Gulf states, and this balance is an important part of China’s strategic culture and its Central Military Commission’s considerations, limiting military cooperation with Iran.
The above-mentioned factors play an important role in shaping the military diplomacy of the two countries. These are the reasons that China-Iran military diplomacy remains limited to a joint military commission (military training, visits, and exercises) and that the technical and industrial commission (focusing on defence industry issues and arms sales) is neglected and unused.