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China and Iran: New Friends
China's decision to send 1,000 soldiers to South Lebanon with the UNIFIL 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
Indonesia steps up too Philip Bowring Indonesia's 1,000-man contribution to the Lebanon peacekeeping force in September is a significant move for the Middle East as well as for a nation which has long punched far below its weight in international affairs. This low profile has been cause for regret given that Indonesia is the world's most populous Muslim-majority country and has an abiding commitment to pluralism and a determinedly secular constitution. It has also made a generally successful transition from centralized authoritarian government to devolved democracy and hopefully settled a long-standing secessionist war in Aceh Province. There are plenty of lessons here for the Middle East and in particular an Arab world which often gives the impression that Mecca and el-Azhar give it precedence over the more numerous Muslims of South and East Asia. But even a modest role for Indonesia in the affairs of the Middle East may create some domestic political problems for a country where very diverse interpretations of religion and nationalism are reflected not just in the democratic system but in the make-up of the government of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. Indonesian troops have participated in UN peacekeeping before. But Lebanon is a particularly difficult assignment and thus provides the potential for large contributors to the force to become players in the wider issue of peacemaking between Israel and the Arabs. Indeed, they may not be able to avoid it. Indonesia's large force is evidence of it willingness to be a player. Likewise the desire of the United States to bring the Indonesians into the process was reflected in Israel's withdrawal of objection to participation by a country with which it does not have diplomatic relations. Despite widespread concern within Indonesia about U.S. policies in the Middle East and in particular its unstinting backing of Israeli military actions, relations between Jakarta and Washington have seldom been better. The United States desperately needs to show that it has Muslim friends who were elected and believe in pluralism. But Indonesia itself remains torn between a sense of loyalty to the Muslim world, which it sees as victim, and its own commitment to pluralism, peacemaking and freedom of speech. This was neatly summed up by the fact that the day the UN force commitment was agreed, an invited Israeli journalist was unable to get a visa to attend a media conference in Indonesia to which he had been invited. Since the fall of President Suharto, Indonesia has been making occasional tentative efforts to develop a dialogue with Israel. But a desire not to present a cause to Muslim fundamentalists at a time of Israeli military actions against Palestinians has stymied progress toward official links. On a wider front, there are several historic reasons for Indonesia's long lack of diplomatic clout. In the eight years since Suharto's fall, the nation has been preoccupied with democratic development, economic recovery from the Asian crisis, the Aceh question and the tsunami and other natural disasters. But Indonesia has also learned from its acceptance of foreign military help after the tsunami and the role of mediation over Aceh that open societies can benefit from international interaction, that national interests are better served by dialogue and cooperation than by fiercely nationalist or ideological stances. Hence there is a sense here now that Indonesia deserves some standing in a world wracked by unilateralist policies and religious intolerance and confrontation. Its image is still sullied by low- grade insurgency, fueled by heavy- handed military actions in Papua which are causing problems with Australia. Papua may yet cause problems with the United States as a result of congressional responses to Christian activists who are eager to paint Papua as an example of "Muslim oppression." But in Lebanon, the Indonesian military will be keen to show off its professionalism. The contingent will be mainly drawn from the elite strategic unit, the 25,000-strong Kostrad, which Yudhoyono himself once commanded. One of its senior officers is the president's son. Civilian politicians are happy to see the military being kept busy overseas with a high profile and prestigious, if dangerous, mission. Indonesia is not going to use this to try to follow the likes of Brazil or India to make a deliberate, focused attempt to play a bigger role internationally. But the 1,000-strong contingent is more than a gesture, and the engagement of this nation should benefit both the peace process and the cause of Muslim pluralism and democracy. Reprinted from the International Herald Tribune 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.
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.
The Hunt for New Allies
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.