China’s strategic game plan in the Persian Gulf

Tuesday, January 4, 2011   E-Mail this story   Free Headline Alerts

By Fariborz Saremi

Realpolitik is now a more important guide to Chinese political thinking than revolutionary ardor. Take, for example, China’s relations to the Persian Gulf, most especially Iran.

As far as the Chinese are concerned, the end of the Cold War saw the international balance of power shift dangerously in favor of the USA. With the Soviet Union weakened the United States has taken major steps to bring the Persian Gulf and its oil under its control. In the general Chinese political view the United States has used the Gulf Wars and the “Dual Containment” of Iraq and Iran to gain hegemony over the region and its essential resources. The export of democracy is simply a synonym for U.S. control of the Persian Gulf oil states through proxy regimes friendly to the West.

China’s main fear, however, is not the export of U.S. values and systems but that Washington might attempt to cut off oil supplies from the Persian Gulf to China, in particular, if any clash of interests involving Taiwan, Korea or Japan should develop into a war-like scenario. As a result, China is interested in strengthening ties to any Persian Gulf suppliers eager to resist U.S. ire. Iran would seem to be the ideal candidate for that given its huge reserves of unexploited oil and gas and its obviously willingness to stand up to US influence in the region. If Iran arms itself, it does so to a substantial degree in response to the arrogant and aggressive policies of the United States towards it. Thus, even a nuclear armed Iran would be a good candidate to cooperate with China in such an extreme situation.

As a result, China has exploited the withdrawal of Western and East Asian firms from commercial involvement with Iran as Security Council and extra U.N. sanctions imposed by the United States and the European Union intensified by encouraging Chinese firms to fill the breech by developing commercial ties in Teheran. By 2010, China had become the major foreign investor in Iran’s energy sector, far exceeding any other country.

Beijing has also not shied away from helping Iran to escape U.S. backed international isolation. Some reports indicate that China was Iran’s second largest weapons supplier from 2002-2009. Much of this activity contravenes both international and China’s own technology transfer controls. China has provided Iran with sophisticated items specifically developed to counter U.S. naval and air forces and according to the Obama administration even assisted in its nuclear and missile programs in direct violation of Security Council sanctions. In fact the U.S. government has officially reprimanded China for 89 instances in which restricted items were supplied to Iran between 1997-2010.

China’s approach is symptomatic of its contradictory interests in the Persian Gulf generally, and regarding the Iranian nuclear issue specifically. China’s rapid economic expansion has of course generated a huge surge in its demand for energy, which China itself cannot hope to meet. Iran would provide a vast source of such energy. Teheran, grateful for any major support in the UN Security Council, would be only to happy to fuel China’s burgeoning economy, especially if it could reinforce its own power to resist U.S. hegemony at the same time.

The United States, moreover faced with such determined opposition by Iran supported by China and by an obvious threat to its ability to gain control over Persian Gulf oil, would be forced to maintain large military forces in the region rather than in the East Asia where China’s core interests lie. In fact the The 9-11 attacks on the United States by Al Qaida terrorist Network and the Islamization of the West have also proved to be a boon to the Chinese as the U.S. has had to invest such huge efforts in taming the Middle East and the Islamic world, leaving China and the Far East largely ignored.

China has in fact had strong historical ties with Iran that are centuries old. Beijing sees Iran as an ambitious and leading regional power of major strategic significance. It is in China’s interests to cultivate a stable partnership with Teheran (and indeed with Pakistan) by assisting the government there (whatever its political or religious leaning might be) to achieve its aims. China is willing therefore to support Iran’s nuclear ambitions so long as its assistance does not contradict China’s obligations under the NPT or spoil its Sino-U.S. relations.

Although under the NPT China as a nuclear-weapons state desires that fewer states have nuclear weapons it has decided that nuclear proliferation in certain cases serves important Chinese interests. China helped Pakistan develop nuclear weapons and resisted U.S. demands in 1997 to drop nuclear cooperation with Pakistan. In the case of North Korea, China seems to see the survival of its ally as being of greater importance than denuclearization of that country. When it comes to the Persian Gulf and Iran in particular, China can afford greater tolerance of Iran’s nuclear program than the USA, since unlike Washington it neither has military bases there nor has it physically attempted to ensure the flow of oil from the region.

Contrary to the view of some top U.S. intelligence agents that China-Iran relations are not a “Strategic Partnership” I must point out that evidence suggests quite strongly that during the June 2009 elections in Iran, Chinese intelligent services were involved in assisting Teheran to gain control of its cyberspace during that crisis. In fact, with the help of China and Russia the Iranian services were able to essentially blunt the use of computer-based communications.

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