How Significant Is the $400 Billion Comprehensive Strategic Partnership between China and Iran

TRANSCEND MEMBERS, 12 Apr 2021

Richard Falk | Global Justice in the 21st Century – TRANSCEND Media Service

8 Apr 2021 – This post consists of my responses to questions posed by the Iranian journalist Javad Heiran-Nia, Questions on the China/Iran Agreement (4 April 2021). The agreement, officially known as Comprehensive Strategic Partnership  was signed formally just a few weeks before it was announced that so-called ‘indirect talks’ between Iran and the U.S. were taking place in Vienna dealing with conditions relevant to the U.S. willingness to rejoin the JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action), the international agreement on Iran’s nuclear program, that had been negotiated in 2015 to address proliferation concerns of the UN P-5 + Germany and the sanctions concerns of Iran. The U.S. withdrew from the agreement in 2018 in fulfillment of Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign pledge to do so because it was derided as a bad deal for the West. What accounts for such talks being ‘indirect’ is not covered in the interview, and seems like a hedge against directly failing to find enough common ground to commence overdue ‘direct’ talks.

1 – The 25-year cooperation document between Iran and China was signed. What is the significance of this document for the two countries?

The agreement configured to be worth at least $400 billion, carefully negotiated, and significantly named Comprehensive Strategic Partnership, promises significant mutual benefit to both countries. For China it offers both a major extension of its Belt and Road Initiative, involving huge infrastructure and investment features, especially Chinese investment in Iranian energy infrastructure and an Iranian commitment to supply China with crude oil. It also extends China’s diplomatic presence to and economic engagement with an important country in the Middle East at an opportune time given the present global setting. The fact that the agreement covers a period of 25 years suggests that it represents long-term commitment by China to Iran and Iran to China, presupposing continuity of governing structures in both countries.

For Iran, it signals the United States that Beijing is not isolated, and possess policy alternatives that can encroach upon American strategic interests. It also sends the message that China will not submit to U.S. pressures with respect either to the restoration of JCPOA or curtail its regional diplomacy that runs counter to the positions of Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the U.S.. The economic dimensions relating to infrastructure investment and trade also promise relief from the burdens imposed on Iran and its people by U.S. sanctions and threat diplomacy over a period of almost 40 years. The long duration projected for the arrangements also gives Iranian governing arrangements a vote of confidence as to stability and legitimacy.

2 – In terms of timing, what messages does the signing of this document have for the United States?

The timing seems important. Coming at the outset of the Biden presidency it sends a dual message: China is prepared to lend its support to countries that are placed under intense pressure by the United States and that China’s international policies will not be changed by the sort of bullying tactics that were exhibited by the American Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, at the recent bilateral meetings in Alaska. It also is an illustration of the difference between the U.S. emphasis on militarism by way of coercive diplomacy, arms sales, and overseas bases, and the very different Chinese stress on fashioning win/win economic relationships that result in mutual benefits without entailing intervention in internal affairs or abridgement of sovereign rights, although in this agreement it contains a provision on security cooperation including sharing intelligence and joint training exercises. At times, Chinese diplomacy may weaken national self-reliance and autonomous development of its partners, but its diplomacy seems to rest consistently on peaceful means and mutual benefits.

 3 – The United States has expressed concern about the signing of this cooperation document. What worries America?

It seems inevitable considering the scale, scope, duration, timing, and even the name of the Iran-China agreement would cause concern in Washington.

The United States has two principal concerns: a weakening of its diplomatic leverage with Iran and a further display of Chinese competitive skills that expose the weakness of current U.S. hegemonic approaches to world order, and specifically in the Middle East. The fact that this cooperative mega-agreement is situated in the Middle East threatens to diminish U.S. regional influence in a crucial strategic setting where it has been unopposed since the end of the Cold War in the early 1990s. This observation is given added plausibility by the recent efforts of several important countries in the Middle East, including even Israel and Saudi Arabia, to enter into significant economic relationships with China. The recent good will visit of the Chinese Foreign Minister, Wang Yi, to the region also reinforced the impression of increasing China’s interests and activities in the region, which can only make Washington nervous about being displaced, or at least challenged. Mr. Wang set forth five principles delimiting satisfactory inter-governmental conduct, which he indicated that if accepted by the governments of the region, would encourage China to play a supportive role. These five principles, somewhat resembling the principles of peaceful coexistence drafted and endorsed by the UN General Assembly are rather benign, but convey aspirations for cooperative relations among states rather than conflictual or hegemonic international relations. [See Declaration of Principles of International Law Concerning Friendly Relations and Co-operation Among States in Accordance with the Charter of the United Nations, GA Res 2625 (XXV), 24 Oct 1970] The five points set forth are mutual respect, upholding equity and justice, achieving non-proliferation, collective security, and accelerated development assistance. Only ‘achieving non-proliferation’ seems a bit peculiar considering that Israel already possesses nuclear weaponry [for elaboration see “Wang Yi Proposes a Five-point Initiative on Achieving Security and Stability in the Middle East,” PR China, March 26, 2021] In this spirit the Foreign Minister ventured to suggest China’s willingness to host a conference dealing with the security of sea lanes and oil facilities in the Middle East.

4- During Iran foreign minister Zarif’s visit to China, the Chinese Foreign Minister somehow tied the signing of this agreement to the settlement of Iran’s disputes with the countries of the region. But he has now traveled to Iran to sign the agreement. Has there been a change in China’s view since Biden came to power in the United States? In other words, has China been waiting for the policy of the new US administration?

That earlier Chinese reluctance to sign the agreement has not been mentioned very often in the Western assessment of the event, which had been tied to Iran’s successful overcoming of difficulties with Arab countries in the region. This somewhat unusual demand, and now the change of position on China’s part lends weight to the circumstantial evidence that formalizing the agreement at this time reflects a reaction to the wider political context. It particularly suggests that China is prepared to demonstrate its firmness and independence in relation to the United States. It is a warning to the Biden presidency that if the U.S. forcibly challenges China’s regional sphere of influence in the South China Seas, China has ways to retaliate. China may still be hoping for a de-escalation of tensions when the negative effects of starting a new cold war become better appreciated by the Biden leadership. This is speculative on my part as nothing formally articulated suggests that such a reconsideration is underway in Washington. The irresponsible allegations of ‘genocide’ allegedly being perpetrated by the Chinese government against the Uyghur minority in the Xinjiang area suggest a further worsening of relations, allegations certain to further inflame relations between these two major countries.

Nevertheless, Washington’s cautious signs of willingness to move toward the resumption of negotiations with regard to JCPOA may also be indicative of a new American interest in neutralizing China’s leverage and influence in Tehran. And beyond this, to keep open the possibility of limiting confrontations to peaceful forms of competition, regionally and globally.

The underlying agreement, officially known as Comprehensive Strategic Partnership  was signed formally just a few weeks before it was announced that so-called ‘indirect talks’ between Iran and the U.S. were starting in Vienna dealing with U.S. conditions and demands relevant to its willingness to rejoin the JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the international agreement on Iran’s nuclear program, that had been negotiated in 2015 to address proliferation concerns of the UN P-5 + Germany and the sanctions concerns of Iran. The U.S. withdrew from the agreement in 2018 in fulfillment of Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign pledge to do so because it was derided as a bad deal for the West. What accounts for such talks being ‘indirect’ is not covered in the interview, and seems like a hedge against directly failing to find enough common ground to commence overdue ‘direct’ talks

5- One of the important issues raised for this cooperation document is Iran’s land connection to Iraq and Syria. In this way, China can connect to the Mediterranean Sea through Iran, Iraq and Syria. Iran has a strong presence in the Syrian port of Tartus, and pro-Iranian forces also control the Bokmal border crossing in Syria’s Deir ez-Zor province and the al-Qaim crossing in Iraq’s Anbar province. How feasible do you think this path is?

I am not in a good position to make any informed judgment beyond expressing the view that this kind of projection is consistent with other arrangements concluded within the framework of the Belt and Road Initiative, which has taken advantage of Chinese capital and skilled labor for similar development projects in Asia and Africa. All of these countries benefit when such plans go forward, and it would strengthen the temptation to preserve political independence in Iraq and Syria to encourage such arrangements, which could be part of a broader strategy of protecting national security of vulnerable countries by practicing equi-distance diplomacy, that is, maintaining workable relations with both the U.S. and China without alignment with either one, and thereby retaining freedom of maneuver.

The Chinese agreement with Iran, officially known as Comprehensive Strategic Partnership  was signed formally just a few weeks before it was announced that so-called ‘indirect talks’ between Iran and the U.S. were taking place in Vienna dealing with conditions relevant to the U.S. willingness to rejoin the JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the international agreement on Iran’s nuclear program, that had been negotiated in 2015 to address proliferation concerns of the UN P-5 + Germany and the sanctions concerns of Iran. The U.S. withdrew from the agreement in 2018 in fulfillment of Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign pledge to withdraw because the agreement was derided as a bad deal for the West. What accounts for such talks being ‘indirect’ is not covered in the interview, and seems like a hedge against failing to find enough common ground if the parties were to commence overdue ‘direct’ talks without adequate preparation. It is likely that these indirect talks are really to intend to explore whether negotiations had a reasonable prospect of success.

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Richard Falk is a member of the TRANSCEND Network, an international relations scholar, professor emeritus of international law at Princeton University, Distinguished Research Fellow, Orfalea Center of Global Studies, UCSB, author, co-author or editor of 60 books, and a speaker and activist on world affairs. In 2008, the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) appointed Falk to two three-year terms as a United Nations Special Rapporteur on “the situation of human rights in the Palestinian territories occupied since 1967.” Since 2002 he has lived in Santa Barbara, California, and associated with the local campus of the University of California, and for several years chaired the Board of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation. His most recent book is On Nuclear Weapons, Denuclearization, Demilitarization, and Disarmament (2019).

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