Even as China’s Stand is Painted as Pro-Iran, Why Beijing is Treading Carefully

While terming the Iranian attack as "symbolic”, China has its own self-interest to maintain in West Asia.

4 min read

The recent tension between Iran and Israel is making China balance a tight spot in the Gulf. The 14 April attack on Israel was the first military attack on the country despite decades of shadow conflict between the two countries since 1979’s Islamic revolution.

Iran’s state-run Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA) news agency acknowledged the drone and missile attack on the Zionist regime and termed it as a "reactionary” position against alleged Israeli attacks on its embassy in Damascus, which has pushed West Asia from a conflict zone to a war zone.

While state news agencies in Iran have projected that China is supporting Iran’s position after its attack on Israel, Beijing seems to be very cautious about its position. While terming the Iranian attack as "symbolic”, China has its own self-interest to maintain in the boiling cauldron of West Asia.

China Is Cautious of Its Middle East Stand

Immediately after the attack, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi made phone calls to his Iranian counterpart, Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, stating that the action was limited and was an act of self-defence.

Citing United Nations Security Council’s inability to make necessary responses towards the embassy attack on Damascus, Amir Abdollahian briefed Wang on Iran’s position. Wang Yi, strongly condemned the attack on the consular section of the embassy in Damascus, calling it a serious violation of international law. It maintained that China wants to be consistent with its support and cooperation towards Iran while avoiding more "turbulence” in the region.

The important aspect of the Chinese reaction towards this escalation, and its true intentions with the Middle East.

Primarily, China wants four things in the region:

  1. Oil Supply

  2. Delegitimising the United States

  3. Building regional ties and lastly

  4. Making way for Xi’s flagship ambitions through GDI (Global Development Initiative) and GSI (Global Security Initiative)

In order to do that, the perception of China being a successful diplomatic player in the region is of paramount importance. This recent conflict is a dent in this perception, where the credibility of China to sustain the much-glorified peace deal between Iran and Saudi Arabia remains hanging from the cliff.


Stakes in the Iran-Saudi Deal

Iran’s actions are reflective of a change in its strategy of transforming from mere proxy wars to direct confrontation. Similarly, Israel’s perception of a retaliatory Iran would create a domino effect on the prevalent conflict scenario which has the propensity of spreading in the Gulf region.

The primary risk for Beijing is that the current scenario can push the Gulf to reframe their security positions with a reckless Iran on the loose. Especially in the case of Saudi Arabia, this might mean breaking from the diplomatic marriage with Iran brokered by China.

Despite the 2023 agreement between Tehran and Riyadh, the latter has never been comfortable with the Saudi-US closeness. While the Gaza war did not derail the detente between the two countries despite their ideological differences, a reactionary Iran in recent times might challenge the diplomatic arrangement.

Chinese interest in this region is beyond matters of energy security but is also reflective of its strategic partnerships with the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) countries in creating a "positive balance” in the region with inconsistent inclinations of being a security provider.

China had signed a 25-year agreement with Iran in 2021 as part of their Comprehensive Strategic Partnership, which even though garnered significant criticism from the West was followed by similar partnerships with 12 other countries in the region.

Many in the Middle Eastern diplomatic sector agree that China has been committed to syncing its Belt and Roads Initiative (BRI) vision with the regional development strategies of countries like Saudi, Qatar, and Egypt, making a chain of interdependencies.

China's Expansionist Goals In The Region

While Chinese officials have never directly mentioned their intentions of creating military visibility in regions beyond Djibouti, but Saudi Arabia, Iran, Yemen, and Bahrain remain probable high-priority areas for feasible military expansion.

Xi Jinping’s flagship proposal for maintaining world peace starts with the idea of the Global Security Initiative (GSI). During his keynote address at the China-GCC Summit, Xi invited regional states to join the GSI and embrace the idea of "shared security”.

While the intent of this strategy is to provide a morally higher alternative to the region’s security architecture, it also aims to capitalise on the embroiling condition of the region and its grievance with the West.

However, the current situation where it cannot contain a country like Iran exposes China’s limit with its strategic vision in the region. It seems to be behaving like a mere facilitator and not a guarantor of the peace deal signed with Saudi Arabia.

What Beijing will probably do during the United States' sanctions against Iran will be to play a similar balancing act between Iran and Saudi Arabia and avoid its possible backfiring.

This might present to the world China’s strategic paradox as mentioned by Yun Sun while he writes for Foreign Policy, is that while China aspires to be a security provider in the region, it wants to piggyback on the US being the chief security guarantor.

Although China wants to be on good terms with everyone in the Middle East, the strategic havoc of choosing an “emboldened” Iran might be counterproductive.

While the Saudi-Iran peace deal remains a nonaggression pact, it will be impossible to state that the current escalation will not raise suspicion on both ends. Even though the Saudi Foreign Ministry issued a statement recently expressing the need to exercise utmost levels of restraint and spare the region from more conflicts, it is not clear whether the Sunni monarchies led by Saudi Arabia will now stand for an anti-Iran air defence alliance considering the latest escalation.

Although this reaction remains consistent with Beijing's reaction of cautioning against further escalation, this conflict has significantly highlighted Chinese reservations about being a regional hegemon while it continues being a critique of the Western security order.

(Upamanyu Basu is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Manav Rachna International Institute of Research and Studies, India. He is currently pursuing his doctorate from the National University of Juridical Sciences. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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