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Emerging contours of Iran-China Relations: An Overview

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  • March 28, 2014
    Fellows' Seminar

    Chairperson: Amb Ishrat Aziz
    External Discussants: Prof A K Pasha and Prof Qamar Agha
    Internal Discussants: Col Rajeev Agrawal and Dr Prashant Kumar Singh

    The paper holistically examines the nature, scope and direction of Iran-China bilateral relations. The author, in this study, highlights dimensions of political and economic intimacy between Tehran and Beijing and elaborates how the two nations figure in each other’s foreign policy. In the first section, author deals with the cooperative aspect of the bilateral engagements. A brief background of the Iran-China relations was discussed to place the issue in a historical framework. Civilizational encounters and exchanges were enumerated to suggest that leaders in both the nations cherish the historic memories to nurture and strengthen the relation. The author clearly identified five guiding principles namely; Ideological principles, Anti-Imperialism, Persian Nationalism, Self-Sufficiency and Islamic solidarity, to enunciate China’s position in Iran’s foreign policy matrix. In the ensuing sections, points of convergence of interest were discussed at length and important areas of cooperation were highlighted including; Political, Economic, Trade and Commerce, Investment, Energy and Defence. Intersection of Political relations was established in terms of diplomatic engagement between Iran and China even before the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Author gave a detailed account of the vibrant Economic and energy relations, trade dynamics and nature of capital investment flow, followed by specifics on energy and defence cooperation. The question of China’s support for Iran’s Nuclear Programme and China’s strategic balancing between Iran and the US was analyzed in detail. Beijing’s anti-Iran votes in the UN Security Council combined with its normal economic engagements with Tehran were mentioned, to argue that China has clearly adopted “Middle of the Road” approach towards Iran.

    Furthermore, author succinctly brought out the challenges of Iran-China relations; with reference to US role in influencing their respective foreign policies. Changing public perception within Iran with regards to China was also discussed. In conclusion, author stated that China’s approach to Iran is being viewed as increasingly mercantilist and opportunistic, and thus took the position that despite flourishing economic ties, the bilateral relations are likely to be riddled with challenges.

    Ambassador Ishrat Aziz recognized and appreciated author’s efforts to coherently analyze Iran-China relations. Thematic unity of the paper was acknowledged. He stated that no relation in contemporary foreign affairs is bilateral per se, and evidently most engagements are shaped by multilateral concerns. The need to discuss Iran and P5+1 nuclear talks and recent developments, was highlighted since it is likely to have repercussions on Iran-China relations.

    Prof. A.K. Pasha acknowledged the author’s efforts to delve into the intricacies of Iran-Sino relations. He suggested the author to include Khomeini and Sassanid period while discussing the background of Iran-China relations. Dr. Pasha shared that increased movement of students between Iran and China was indicative of growing cultural exchange and the author was asked to analyze cultural aspect of Iran-China ties. It was further stated that foreign policies were not drafted in vacuum and thus there was a need to address the driving force behind Iran’s foreign policy; while dealing with the guiding principles. He also shared his insights on the role played by external players in the changing geo-political landscape of West Asia, and suggested the author to see how these external factors have influenced Iran-China relations.

    Dr. Qamar Agha appreciated author’s holistic and descriptive approach to the subject, and highlighted scope for further analysis. He opined that Iran is now entering a new phase in its modern history, and is experimenting with its foreign policy. Despite international isolation, Iran exhibited an impressive growth over the last three decades; best reflected in its nuclear programme. Commenting on China’s policy, Dr. Agha raised the question of China-Pak intimacy and its likely impact on Sino-Iran ties. China’s policy of energy diversification was briefly discussed, and interestingly, GCC is now being viewed as a famous trade market by China. All these tectonic shifts suggest that” Neither East, Nor West policy” of Iran is unsustainable.

    Col Rajeev Agarwal agreed with the major arguments put forward by the author and appreciated the author’s attempt to produce a comprehensive paper. He urged the author to clearly articulate the key findings of his study in the conclusion section and suggested that connecting foreign policy directive principles to the specific case of Iran-China bilateral engagement would add more value to the paper.

    Dr. Prashant Singh appreciated the topical value and contemporary nature of the paper. He suggested the author to bring out the normative convergence of Iran and China’s foreign policy ideologies and stated that the major developments in Iran-China relations in the last ten years should be the main focus of the paper. Dr. Prashant stated that even though Iran’s perception within China was undergoing slow change, but impact of these perceptions on Iran’s foreign policy is not confirmed.

    The discussion was followed by Question and Answer round. US role in influencing China’s and Iran’s respective foreign policy was discussed, along with impact of political transition in Tehran in August 2013 on Iran-China relations. Questions were raised on China’s strategic balance between Iran and Saudi Arabia; and how Saudi Arabia figured in China’s policy towards West Asia. It was mentioned that despite differences between Iran and Saudi Arabia, both hold an important place in China’s “West Asia policy.”

    Prepared by Ms. Divya Malhotra, Research Intern, West Asia Centre, IDSA