Bihu Chamadia, Research Intern, ICS
The US-Iran conflict has been a long drawn one but it wasn’t until recently that the Middle East witnessed the involvement of another powerful actor in the region. Of late, China’s role in the Middle East has become more proactive. China has been trying to fill the void created by the current US leadership. In the past, The US intervention in Middle East has been twofold – both in terms of military presence as well as civilian efforts. However, the present era in the Middle Eastern region has been characterized as ‘post-American era’. This majorly indicates that while the US’s military presence remains the same there has been a massive decrease in the civilian and diplomatic efforts in the Middle East by the US. China has been trying to fill the long stretches of soft power diplomacy left by the US’s decision to ‘go out’ from the region. While the US-Iran conflict has exacerbated tensions in an already conflict ridden region, China’s rise as a global actor and its Belt Road Initiative (BRI) has led to its greater involvement in the Middle East. As such, it can rightly be said that China’s policy in the Middle East has undergone a big shift – from the policy of non-intervention to that of ‘crisis diplomacy’.
China’s response to the ongoing US-Iran crisis can be described as both strategic and balanced. As a responsible global actor and an important stakeholder in the region, China has given a call for upholding international norms and has been critical of any country that has tried to undermine it. China has been critical of the US actions in Iran especially with regards the following: the US pulling out of the Joint Comprehensive Plan Of Action (JCPOA) or the Iran Nuclear deal, imposing sanctions on Iranian oil imports and the killing of Iranian major general in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Qasem Soleimani. All the above actions have received condemnatory reactions from China but not without an act of balancing.
The US pulled out of the Iran Nuclear Deal in 2018 calling it “a horrible one-sided deal that should never, ever have been made”. China responded by expressing regret over the US’s decision. China mentioned that it “will take an objective, fair and responsible attitude, keep communication and cooperation with all parties concerned, and continue to work to maintain the deal.” China’s response to US’s pulling out of JCPOA can be viewed in a similar light as its response to US’s backing out of various multilateral agreement including the Paris Agreement. While US has been continuously pulling out of various multilateral international agreements China has been continuously giving calls to “Work Together to Build a Community of Shared Future for Mankind”
In 2018, after pulling out of JCPOA, the US reinstated its sanctions on Iran on the following sectors: energy, shipping and financial sectors. The sanction banned the US companies from not only trading with Iran, but also with foreign firms or countries that were dealing with Iran. China responded by criticizing the US for its “unilateral sanctions” and “bullying”. It even defied the US sanctions and continued buying oil from Iran. Defying the US sanctions, China continues to buy Iranian oil. Nevertheless, China’s response has been more than a mere lip service. It has been constantly advocating the significance of multilateralism as a way to manage political as well as economic matters.
With regards Qasem Soleimani, the killing of the General who headed the Elite Quds Force of IRGC in an airstrike carried out by the US forces has led to criticism of the US by various states. US had earlier designated Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), including its Quds Force, as a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO). Responding with a call to maintain restraint by all parties involved in the incident, China singled out the US “for violating international norms”. The US killed Qasem Soleimani, a uniformed personnel of IRGC travelling in a flagged car in a sovereign third party state, which hosts US forces. Killing of Qasem Soleimani by the US forces has raised questions on the legality of the US’s actions. According to UN charter, unless the purpose for using force is an act of self-defense or to prevent an imminent attack on US interest or US forces, the US is prohibited from using force in or against any other nation without UN’s authorization. In case of self-defense, attack killing Qasem Soleimani will be lawful under Article 51 of the UN charter. The killing of Qasem Soleimani would have been lawful under Article 51 of the UN Charter as an act of self-defense. Though, Mike Pompeo, Secretary of State has claimed that self-defense led to the killing of Qasem Soleimani, US has not been able to provide the evidence of the same in front of UNSC.
Domestic Impact of US-Iran conflict on China
Escalation of conflicts in the Middle East could lead to rise in the prices of oil, thereby, severely affecting China’s economy. China’s economy is heavily dependent on oil imports. China is the world’s largest importer of crude oil (US$ 239.2 billion in 2019). Among the top 15 largest exporters of crude oil to China 7 countries belong to the Middle East. Moreover, Middle East is also an important part of China’s Maritime Silk Road Initiative (MSRI). Most vessels transporting goods, including oil, between China and Europe must pass through several choke points in the Middle East for e.g. up to one third of crude oil shipped over sea has to transit through the Strait of Hormuz, off the coast of Iran and the United Arab Emirates (UAE)
The BRI and China’s economic growth both are major factors undergirding CCP’s legitimacy at home. Until China finds an alternative to its energy supplies, a stable Middle East would be more favorable to China than an unstable one.
Impact on the International Stage
The US along with some other western powers, had set up the current framework for international law and norms after WW II. While it worked in favor of the Western powers earlier. Today, as China adopts the ‘going out’ policy, it has been largely benefitting China.
On Killing of Qasem Soleimani, China responded by saying “The sovereignty and territorial integrity of Iraq should be respected, and peace and stability in the Middle East and the Gulf should be maintained” further, it Chinese authorities also stated, “We urge all parties concerned, especially the United States, to maintain calm and restraint and to avoid the further escalation of tension.”
China’s role in the Middle East has been a strategic one, unlike the US it does not have any permanent enemy or an ‘all weather friend’ in the region. China’s role in the Middle East has been that of a regional leader where it has brought the conflicting parties to hold talks with an aim of peacefully resolving the crisis situations. It also remains cautious about not being engaged in the conflict. China’s geographical distance also helps to maintain a distance from the region to a considerable extent, China also remains careful to merely criticize the US without taking any concrete action that can go against its own interest and derail the trade negotiation talks. However, if the US continues with its misadventure, China will also be able to legitimize its criticism over US meddling in the internal affairs of other countries.
The escalation in US-Iran conflict coincides with the US-China trade war. China has always been highlighting the political nature of the trade war. President Trump’s policies in the Middle East and especially vis-à-vis Iran has paved the way for China’s intervention in the Middle East which has benefited China in at least two areas – , the assurance of continuous energy supply within a system that is beneficial for China and the opportunity to ratify itself as a world leader. On one hand China defied the US’s sanctions and continued to import Iranian oil, which establishes China as a leader. Meanwhile it remains practical to look for other sources of energy, which secures its long term plan as Iranian oil export to China is decreasing.