Israel, Iran and Beijing’s delicate balance
London - No wonder Chinese Premier Li Keqiang has been urging “concerted efforts” to ensure the deal over Iran’s nuclear programme does not get derailed: He wants the green light for China to enhance its ties with the Islamic Republic.
Meanwhile, Israel is striving to block the deal, which Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has called a “historic mistake”.
China’s ties with both Iran and Israel are burgeoning but will their antagonism towards each other imperil Beijing’s ability to get what it wants from these relationships?
“If you’re a major player like China, over time your partners expect more than a purely utilitarian relationship,” says James Dorsey, senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore. “That’s where the rub is. All the principles of non-interference and harmony are unsustainable. There’s the beginning of a realisation of that in China.”
China is Iran’s largest trading partner and Iran is China’s third biggest supplier of oil, contributing about 12% of its imports. A successful nuclear deal will boost trade, investment and energy opportunities.
Nothing unusual there — Western business types have also been beating a path to Tehran — but Iran also occupies a key position in China’s larger One Belt, One Road policy, which could see it invest trillions of dollars to create an overland trade route and integrated economic area from western China to the Middle East and Europe through Central Asia. The Iran nuclear deal affords China wider security and political opportunities. Military cooperation ticked up in 2013 and 2014, with high-profile leadership visits and port calls involving the two countries’ navies. Many of Iran’s missiles are Chinese-made or based on Chinese designs, something that Dorsey says will irk Israel and other rivals such as Saudi Arabia.
Both Iran and China border Afghanistan, from where US and other coalition forces are due to withdraw in 2016, and could cooperate for stability there. China in particular is worried about militancy that could feed into unrest among the Muslim Uighur population in its Xinjiang province.
Iran’s rehabilitation will enable Beijing to bring it closer into its political embrace, giving it full membership of China-led multilateral organisations such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation. Iran is a founding member of China’s Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB). Some analysts argue such moves are explicitly designed to dilute US influence.
Israel, too, is a founding member of the AIIB — much to Washington’s displeasure. Indeed, some argue that the chilly relationship between the Obama White House and the Netanyahu government is causing Israel to carry out its own pivot to Asia. A stream of high-ranking Chinese officials have been to Israel since Netanyahu’s Beijing visit in 2013.
That suits China just fine. Its main interest is in Israeli technology. In the 1980s and 1990s, that mostly meant military technology — but it didn’t get all that it wanted. In 2000, the United States threatened to cut military aid to Israel if it went ahead with sales of sensitive equipment to China.
Now China is looking to Israel for agritech, biotech, information technology and clean tech, including water-saving and irrigation solutions. Asia’s richest man, Hong Kong billionaire Li Ka-shing, has made high-profile investments in Israeli firms and has donated money to an institute of technology in Haifa. Chinese firms are involved in Israeli infrastructure projects and the countries are discussing the creation of a free trade zone.
In the past China might have concealed its growing partnership with Israel to avoid undermining relationships with other Middle Eastern countries but no longer, says Yoram Evron of Haifa University’s Asian Studies department.
“The main reason for the change stems from China’s growing self-confidence and understanding that the battle against Israel is no longer a uniting factor in the Muslim world,” he wrote in the newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth.
China has recognised the state of Palestine and does not consider Hamas or Hezbollah to be terrorist groups. But Evron argues that Israel’s relative stability amid growing chaos in the region, its strategic importance and status as a US ally all motivate China to cultivate good relations. However, while Iran may look to China as an alternative power to the United States, Israel is unlikely to follow suit, no matter how strained things might be between their current leaders. And China is more likely to be concerned by the US reaction to its changing relationships in the Middle East than by the rivalry between individual regional states. Dorsey predicts that within a decade or so, Chinese military bases could appear in the region.
“You’ll see bases and assertive policies affecting Saudi Arabia and Iran, Israel and the Palestinians and political stability generally,” he said. “To a degree this will be welcomed by the West. Over time there will be a dilution of the US security umbrella in the Persian Gulf.
China will push the envelope but be careful not to overthrow the cart.”
Such moves will be defined by national interest, aided, Dorsey says, by the fact that its government does not have to deal with lobbies or ethno-religious pressure groups at home.
While the White House grapples with the pro-Israel lobby or evangelical Christian organisations, which affect domestic political calculations, the Chinese politburo has no such concerns. There are an estimated 70 million Christians and about 23 million Muslims including about 11 million ethnic Uighurs in China, but, as Dorsey notes, they do not vote.