There is no doubt that Arab-Chinese relations have been growing and developing for decades.
From an Arab governmental point of view, China is seen as an important supporter of Arab issues guaranteeing a sense of balance within the boundaries of international relations as well as an integral trade partner and supplier of economically viable goods and technology.
For China, Arab countries represented reciprocal international support for its causes as well as important markets for Chinese products and an even much more important source for fossil fuels. From a bilateral point of view, both the Arab countries and China shared common threats and pressures from the US and its allies. In the ever-evolving scene of international relations and consequent interests, both the Arab countries and China find it necessary to redesign and adjust their relative strategies to help manoeuvre and enable them to face challenges, confront threats, and most importantly, grasp opportunities.
China’s interest in the Middle East region has not been limited to Arab countries. It has developed relations with all the regional key players, such as Iran, Israel, and Turkey. China has long held that its main international relations driver has been commerce and trade specially focused with the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI); seemingly all its moves are justifiable under this pretext.
Within the context of the BRI and its overall global strategic positioning in competition with the US and all other players, China advanced its position with a move towards the Islamic Republic of Iran. Iran, a prominent force in the Middle East, has been playing a controversial role of exporting its brand of religious clergy revolutions towards its neighbours, supporting paramilitary groups outside state control in Lebanon, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Gaza, and inciting religious tensions in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait and throughout the GCC region.
Iran continues to develop ballistic missile and drone technology to threaten its neighbours and deter other players in the region, develop a large scale nuclear programme that can turn from peaceful to military in a short period of time, threaten maritime navigation in the Arabian Gulf, and most recently was accused of backing and supporting attacks on the biggest oil refineries and production facilities in the KSA.
Overall, Iran continues to play a destabilising role in the Middle East, and now China has stepped in to back up the Ayatollah regime with a $400 billion “strategic agreement” that extends for 25 years.
On 24 June 2020, China and Iran signed an undisclosed strategic agreement which is viewed by many if not all of the involved parties in the Middle East region as a critical move for its timing and expected outcomes. How will this strategic agreement affect the dynamics of events in the region and the quality of Arab-Chinese relations now and in the future? What does each party to the agreement expect to achieve?
China’s moves can be interpreted on multiple levels. From a strategic global perspective, China is responding to direct US pressure in its immediate sphere of influence. Go-politically, the US has pressured China in the South China Sea and Taiwan. The US also continues to counter China’s global image on issues of freedom in Hong Kong and Tibet. It also accuses China of grave human rights violations against minorities, such as the Muslim Uyghurs in Xinjiang province.
The approach China is adopting towards Iran is regarded as a counter move in an area that is of high interest to the US. China’s strategic agreement with Iran also coincided with the US Trump administration’s withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action which was created to hamper Iran’s attempts to develop nuclear weapons.
The China-Iran agreement has caught many of China’s Arab friends and supporters off guard, to say the least. China maintains its justifications that the strategic agreement with Iran aligns with its direct interests of securing its energy and oil supplies as well as diversifying its oil suppliers to avoid depending on one source to quench its 10 million barrels a day and growing thirst for the fossil fuels it needs to continue vitalising its economic growth, which is of much global impact.
From the Arab perspective, China’s move clearly provides Iran with a lifeline and a backdoor to breath smoothly even while US sanctions and EU embargos are in place. Not only that, but Iran has maintained a steady supply of money, weapons, and support to all its para-military groups of followers from Hezbullah in Lebanon, to the Shiaa El-Hashd El-Shaaby in Iraq, the Allouite regime in Syria, the Houthis (Ansarullah) in Yemen, Waad Allah and El-Haydariyah in Bahrain, and most recently to Hamas in the Gaza Strip in Palestine.
In fact, Iran’s direct interference has hastened and amplified the economic turmoil in Lebanon, triggering a political bipolar stalemate. The incapacity to create a government has pushed the once thriving nation to the precipice of bankruptcy and an unknown future with increasing volatility towards ethnic and religious conflict.
In Iraq, governments are being challenged and manipulated consecutively with El-Hashd, a Revolutionary Guard-like body, bearing arms and threatening all those who dare speak in favour of a civil state and a nation not divided by religious quotas and controlled by Shiaa clergymen with allegiance to Iran.
In Syria, Iran’s role was clear, to support Al-Assad's regime regardless of what the Syrians themselves wanted or were willing to die for, to the extent that Iranians were willing to kill Syrians just to maintain their grip on the Levant, which also provides them with a window and an escape route to the Mediterranean in case things heat up in the Arabian Gulf.
Again, in Yemen, Iran spread chaos and statelessness with its direct support for the Houthis on the merits of being a Zaydy Shiaa faction that disregards any respect for legitimacy or sovereignty of the state. For the past seven years, the Houthis have been on a rampage throughout Yemen making the once economically challenged country in complete disarray with very little or no hope of regaining its once unified posture.
Adding to the conflict-ridden, economically-challenged regional mix, Hamas’s public announcements after its latest showdown with Israel clearly state that it received money and munitions from Iran. This gratitude was previously expressed by all the above-mentioned groups that have vastly contributed to the region’s instability and fuelled raging conflicts with devastating socio-economic and political effects. Therefore, although China claims that it does not interfere with domestic and regional disputes and it moves only to serve its economic interests, it is intentionally or unintentionally freeing Iran’s arm to slash and stab at its Arab neighbours.
Although grouped under one name, the Arabs are 22 nations with diversified resources and capacities that should not be overlooked or underestimated by China in favour of their rival Iran. Should there be a regime change disrupting the clergy grip in Iran or should it be pressured to re-align itself towards the West with the new Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action being drafted in Vienna during 2021, Iran may turn out to be a lot less of a strategic counterpart than expected by China.
The deal may actually turn sour if the US and the Europeans manage to turn Iran around and there is a huge potential for that.
China might still be able to mitigate the damage with its long-time Arab friends. Can China find its political savvy in mediating between the Arabs and Iran and succeed where the US has failed? There is a great opportunity to be had in this particular case.
Regional neighbours need to find their peace and they all need to regain composure after the economic ravages of the COVID-19 pandemic and the continued state of conflict that has lasted for decades and drained countless resources. If China could broker a deal to bring calm to the region, it might turn out to be the biggest winner.
In its drive to compete for international leadership and prove its worthiness as a global super power, China needs to exert effort to achieve peace, stability, and prosperity beyond its borders. It needs to demonstrate its vision of world order based on principle, not just interest.
Many Arabs had aspired for the rise of China to shift international relations away from its uni-polar state towards multilateralism in the hope of finding alternative solutions to decades-old questions and issues.
China has given hope to the poorer nations and the economic underdogs, for many it was the hero of the new millennium. Will China be able to back this image up against great odds?