Print Читать на русском
Rate this article
(votes: 5, rating: 5)
 (5 votes)
Share this article
Tristan Kenderdine

Research Director at Future Risk

China’s rise in the Middle East is not simply a case of debt-trap diplomacy or expanding Chinese influence; it requires an ideological shift to accommodate a new regional player and the process of institutional change that that brings. Any US action in Iran would profoundly benefit China’s interests in Iran and strengthen its position across the region. Inviting China’s capital, technology transfer, and arms trade into Iran and further opening Iranian export markets to China would greatly accelerate a fundamental shift in the undercurrent of the Middle East: a geoeconomic shift from a northward regional axis to a southward regional axis – away from Moscow and towards the Indian Ocean, facilitating China’s access ambitions.

If the US is seen to be throwing the dice rather than thinking it through, then China’s Iran policy is also undercooked, a waxing regional power completely unprepared for foreign policy misadventures in the Middle East. However, for the US, this is not 1991 or 2003. In 1991 regional conflicts were more easily isolated into global power narratives. The year 2003 destabilized the region, was probably the beginning of the distrust and delegitimation of Western democratic governance models abroad and also the start of disaffection with national and power politics as patronage systems at home. However, unlike 2003, 2019 is wired. In 2019 governments struggle to control narratives that were once the monopoly of technocrats in the military industrial complex. The US has lost control of the global governance narrative, and let slip the dogs of war on a whim into a tornado of uncontrollable variables in both information warfare and conventional warfare is inviting catastrophe from calm.

China’s rise in the Middle East is not simply a case of debt-trap diplomacy or expanding Chinese influence, it requires an ideological shift to accommodate a new regional player and the process of institutional change that that brings. Any US action in Iran would profoundly benefit China’s interests in Iran and strengthen its position across the region. Inviting China’s capital, technology transfer, and arms trade into Iran and further opening Iranian export markets to China would greatly accelerate a fundamental shift in the undercurrent of the Middle East: a geoeconomic shift from a northward regional axis to a southward regional axis – away from Moscow and towards the Indian Ocean, facilitating China’s access ambitions.

Without a US-trade war in the Pacific or a potential hot war in the Gulf, the world does not have too much to fear in China yet. Generally speaking, China is too incompetent to be a superpower: ideologically deficient, global governance deficient, power projection deficient, and geoeconomically deficient. Coupled with the fact that China has geopolitically over-extended itself over the past eighteen months and also has virtually zero competence in Middle East affairs, China is unprepared to fully back Iran in any conflict with the US.

However, a developing China axis of future influence falls roughly along a straight line from Urumqi to Cairo. Professor Wang Yangshu, at Lanzhou University Central Asian Institute, has argued that China’s interaction with Central Asian and Middle Eastern economies will primarily be with the US along this line. I would further push that anything south of this line falls into a China Indian Ocean sphere of influence, while anything north of it remains solely within Moscow’s purview. Moreover, if Russia’s historically significant regional states are Afghanistan, Iran, and Turkey, then China’s could be said to be Pakistan, Iran and Turkey. It is clear that Iran is central to China’s 21st Century geostrategy.

Iran is a strategic Belt and Road bridge, critical to China’s land and sea infrastructure construction for cementing trade routes from Europe and East Africa into Western China. The five key the Middle East Indian Ocean economies for China are Pakistan, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Oman all centered around an Indian Ocean geoindustrial policy. The prospect of China geoeconomic power in the Persian Gulf and the Red Sea mean opening the Indian Ocean to a new world of geoeconomic opportunities for China’s geo-industrial and geopolitical options. This means China’s Middle East trade and industry policy should be read as a geo-industrial foundation of a future geopolitics

For Iran, wider questions about the Iranian economy all seem to have natural answers in China too. China’s civil nuclear technology transfer program is bringing third-generation pressurized water Hualong One reactors to Iran, which can be deployed on inland river systems, away from the vulnerable coast. Alongside technology transfers, China is offering industrial capacity transfers in aluminum and steel, agroindustrial investment, and of course, a massive oil consumer market. China is also developing competency in water security in the region, practicing strategic water limitation of Tibetan rivers to India, developing a Tibet-Xinjiang terraforming plan, as well as its strategic cooperative relationships with Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan—both great water stores. Given Iran’s acute water security crisis and extant domestic political risk, any Chinese water security would be invaluable.

Questions on Iran that the US administration should be asking itself are which formal and informal government-to-government institutional linkages between China and Iran will be strengthened by any US-led conflict? Perhaps most importantly in terms of institutional history, would be the institutional relationships of the people within Iran who were there for Iran-China arms trade and military support in the past. Like the picture of Rumsfeld with Saddam, who from Iran was buying Chinese arms in the Iran-Iraq war who is still reasonably relevant to the current Iran administration? Similarly, with China’s economic technoindustrial transfers, there is an Iran-China institutional structure here that strategic bombardment is not going to weaken, but will only strengthen.

China already has overseas military bases in Tajikistan and Djibouti. It has flirted with force projection in Syria. China also supplies technology to Iran for Iran’s civil nuclear power program. China has the power to shortcut any aspect of Iran’s military nuclear program. In the short-term, there is little chance of China forward deploying in Iran, but in the longer term, closer military relations between the two states could begin to form a natural alliance against US power in the region. The US media response to US belligerence in Iran has so far been one of bemusement, but Chinese rhetoric towards the US over the trade war has been a “tallionic” like for like, with the statement on Tuesday 15th May 2019 on State CCTV about the trade war that China is not willing to fight, but not afraid to fight, and will fight if necessary. And if China were to support Iran in proxy wars with the United States, the resulting quagmire could become intractable for the US.

China may not be ready for regional influence or projected power, but foreign policy hawks in Washington or Moscow are not ready for this either. Both have only ever seen China within their own threat matrices, not of China redefining these matrices. Likewise, the outcome of any military confrontation will not matter in the short-term, but this could be remembered as the conflict that ended the 75-year aerospace domination of warfare, and ushers in a new age of security threats in information, technology, and water.

If the US is seen to be throwing the dice rather than thinking it through, then China’s Iran policy is also undercooked, a waxing regional power completely unprepared for foreign policy misadventures in the Middle East. However, for the US, this is not 1991 or 2003. In 1991 regional conflicts were more easily isolated into global power narratives. The year 2003 destabilized the region, was probably the beginning of the distrust and delegitimation of Western democratic governance models abroad and also the start of disaffection with national and power politics as patronage systems at home. However, unlike 2003, 2019 is wired. In 2019 governments struggle to control narratives that were once the monopoly of technocrats in the military industrial complex. The US has lost control of the global governance narrative, and let slip the dogs of war on a whim into a tornado of uncontrollable variables in both information warfare and conventional warfare is inviting catastrophe from calm.


Rate this article
(votes: 5, rating: 5)
 (5 votes)
Share this article
 
For business
For researchers
For students