China's decision to send 1,000 soldiers to south Lebanon with the U.N.I.F.I.L. mission is the latest example of Beijing's increased involvement in the Middle East. The overall importance of the broader Middle East for China's geostrategy is growing. China is searching for new regional allies because it wants to pursue strategic aims such as gaining privileged access to crude oil reserves, finding new markets for its products and technology, and competing with the United States for supremacy in an area that is a fundamental part of the international system. Iran seems to be the best ally for such an approach, thus the strategic relationship between the two countries has increased strongly during the past few years.
Why China is Eyeing Iran
China has much interest in enlarging its presence in the Middle East. The Middle East is a region with significant geostrategic importance for the entire global political balance. China will play an increasing role on the global scene, and therefore it needs to reinforce its presence in regions that are fundamental for the overall fate of the global political balance. [See: "China Becomes Increasingly Involved in the Middle East"]
On this chessboard, China could have an important role in terms of economic, strategic and ideological influence. Beijing, therefore, is trying to strengthen its ties with those regional powers that represent an opportunity for entering into the regional political balance strongly. Iran is the main target of such a strategy. Iran is a major supplier of oil and gas and it could represent a fundamental source of energy for the development and modernization of China, which is increasingly reliant upon oil imports.
Moreover, China wants to reinforce its relations with Iran and to deepen its presence in Central Asia with the goal of reaching Caspian energy; tapping Caspian energy would help China lessen its dependence on maritime oil imports coming from the Arab countries of the Persian Gulf, thus better securing the uninterrupted flow of oil.
China has also been exploiting opportunities in countries where the presence of major powers is weak. Clear examples of this are the moves China has made in Sudan, Angola and Syria. As part of this strategy, Tehran is an ideal partner for Beijing, both for its natural resources and for its geopolitical influence. Iranian crude oil and gas reserves are largely untapped because the country has suffered the ostracism of Western countries, leaving a large part of its petroleum fields unexplored since Tehran does not have adequate technology to increase its refined oil-production. China proposes itself as the country that can help Iran in the way of modernizing its petroleum industry and the wider Iranian economy with industrial technology, capital, engineering services and nuclear technology.
The Sino-Iranian economic relationship extends beyond the oil and gas spheres. Beijing is not only interested in the exploitation of Iran's oil reserves. China, for example, wants to deepen the presence of its firms in the Iranian market, which could be a good outlet for Chinese exports. The development of a strong economy is fundamental for China's external projection of power. Economic concerns, however, are only part of China's strategy toward Iran.
Iran as a Geopolitical Instrument to Combat U.S. Influence
Beijing perceives Tehran as a geopolitical instrument to combat U.S. influence in the Middle East, even though this rivalry is not emerging as an overt competition. Beijing's calls to avoid U.N. sanctions against Tehran's nuclear program and the selling of Chinese weapons and military technology to Iran are two clear examples of the deeper relationship between the two countries.
Moreover, Iran joined the Shanghai Cooperation Organization as an observer; the organization is largely a Sino-Russian instrument for containing the U.S. presence in Central Asia. Additionally, Central Asia represents an important concern for Iran in its security calculations, thus Tehran prefers the stronger role of China and Russia in the region rather than the United States.
Iran is emerging as a new rising regional power and it is playing a lead role in the Middle East's diplomatic balance. The recent crisis in Lebanon demonstrated that Iranian capabilities in influencing the regional dynamics are stronger than before. Moreover, in a period in which world energy markets highlight the increasing dependence of industrial powers on petroleum prices, Tehran has an important instrument of geopolitical pressure through its status as a major oil producer and for its control of the Strait of Hormuz.
In spite of the harsh internal struggle for power and the country's inner social and political heterogeneity, which displays the fragmentation of the Iranian leadership and the country as a whole, "nuclear nationalism" is an element that rallies the nation together, minimizing the political and social cleavages and reinforcing the Iranian projection of power overseas.
China needs new allies and privileged access to the oil reserves in the Middle East. Iran appears to be the best target for such an approach. The importance of energy reserves for China rests on the country's desire to develop its economy, which is the foundation of its attempts to play a stronger role in the international system. Also, Tehran's position in the Middle East is stronger than before, thus it can help Beijing in the fight against unrivaled U.S. influence.
For Iran, it needs a powerful ally to help it develop its economy, especially its oil industry. Moreover, it wants to improve its diplomatic and military status in the Middle East. Its nuclear program is a clear example of this. Iran needs civil and military technology and Beijing could be a good partner in these fields.
Finally, both countries are struggling against the supremacy of the United States in the world system, even though publicly Tehran is more aggressive toward this end than Beijing. The improving relationship between Iran and China does not mean that their long term interests are the same, but it does mean that in the medium term the two states share common aims in the economic and geopolitical spheres.
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