On March 27, 2021, China and Iran signed a 25-year cooperation agreement valued at 400 billion USD and integrating Iran into the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative. For Russia, the agreement was received on two levels. On one level, Russia, which has been on the receiving end of Western sanctions viewed the agreement as a blow to the sanctions policy and therefore as a positive. On a different level, the Sino-Iranian agreement, coupled with recent activity by Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi in the region that included visits to Saudi Arabia, Turkey, the UAE, Bahrain, and Oman raised the question of Chinese competition for Russia. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov was queried about this issue in a press conference at the Valdai Discussion Club think tank. Lavrov welcomed "honest competition".
"Question: The People’s Republic of China (PRC), with which we maintain friendly and strategic relations, has recently become more active in the Middle East. Observers and analysts are speaking about a fundamentally new stage in China’s foreign policy, including its increased presence in the Middle East and its interest in the region. It is notable that China’s latest initiatives are similar, to a degree, to the initiatives of the Russian Federation. This concerns, for example, the idea of collective security for the Persian Gulf, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and several other aspects. What can you say on this topic? How should we regard this Chinese activity?
"Sergey Lavrov: China is a global power with interests in all parts of the world. The PRC is promoting its economic projects within the framework of the Belt and Road concept and a community of shared future for humankind. It indeed has global interests, which are based on real global possibilities.
"There is no denying that the Belt and Road concept rests on an extremely serious economic foundation. This has been recently discussed at the events the EU held jointly with the Americans within the NATO framework. They have openly formulated the task of creating an alternative to this economic “expansion.”
"We believe in honest competition. In this case, mala fide methods are being used against China, just as against the Russian Federation. Relevant examples include the attempts being made by the United States and Europe, which is following in its wake, to adopt restrictions on the most trivial pretexts, to undermine their rivals’ positions and to introduce artificial restrictions on global markets contrary to the norms of the World Trade Organisation (WTO).
"Of course, China has a right to protect its interests, just as we are doing in that region. China has recently proposed hosting a direct dialogue between Israel and Palestine, just as we did in the past."
The following report sketches Russian reaction to the agreement both in terms of Chinese competition and in terms of the blow that it represents to American policy and the US position in the Middle East.
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and his Iranian Counterpart Javad Zarif at signing ceremony (Source: Beltandroad.news)
Nikolai Vavilov: Middle East Is Resistant To Chinese Presence
Sinologist Nikolai Vavilov is not perturbed by the China-Iran deal and believes that China has been spinning its wheels in the region. He pointed to highly touted deals such as a high-speed railway between China and Iran that has been repeatedly postponed. "The Middle East's internal cultural and humanitarian component is resistant to China's political presence. In these circumstances Moscow can acquire the position of an arbiter and third force in the US-China conflict. However, one shouldn’t forget, that India and some European countries have the same opportunity," believes Vavilov.
According to Vavilov Russia should be proactive, "Previous experience demonstrates that in the region, the Chinese cannot do without the Kremlin’s political and humanitarian management. [Therefore, it provides an opportunity] for strengthening of our bilateral relations through cooperation between the foreign ministries,” assures the expert.
Vavilov believes that the PRC's Communist ideology facilitates relations with many Arab regimes, which were formed under the considerable influence of socialist ideas. These countries' ruling parties still adhere to such ideas. Surprisingly, Vavilov believes that the situation of Muslim minorities in China is actually an asset for Beijing: "Despite American propaganda efforts, Muslims live quite comfortably in China, which achieved great success in the development of its Muslim regions. [Such regions] serve as a display window for Beijing’s work with Muslim countries. However, one should not forget that in general, the Middle East considers the Chinese to be pagans."[iii]
Nikolai Vavilov (Source: Newprospect.ru)
Vasily Kashin: Russia Is Economically Overmatched In The Competition But Fortunately Russia And China Are Not Competing In The Same Areas
Vasily Kashin, a senior researcher at the Russian Academy of Sciences' Institute of the Far East believes that China dwarfs Russia in the Middle East: "For decades China has been a major economic partner for the entire region. China is also the main export destination for the region's countries, the most important investment source, a partner in the technological field and etc. Russia has a military presence in Syria, recently [such a Russian military presence] also appeared in Sudan. Moscow is engaged in military-political and military-technological cooperation with a number of the region's countries. But Russia's role in the Middle East economy, in comparison with China, is quite small," said Kashin.
Additionally, China's Middle East footprint was ubiquitous, while Russia' was selective: "We seriously cooperate with Syria and Iran, but our cooperation with Saudi Arabia or Qatar is much weaker. Thanks to the Syrian military operation, Russia’s influence has grown, but in a number of key activities we cannot compete with the Chinese. There is some competition with Beijing in the arms markets. We supply agricultural products there [to the Middle East], and are trying to enter the nuclear energy market, telecommunications and other dual-use goods. The Chinese are trying to enter the local high-tech market, and already import large volumes of oil and gas from the Middle East. Therefore, from my point of view, we shouldn’t care about China’s growing influence in the Middle East," Kashin opined.
China’s trade-oriented policy facilitated its penetration. "Beijing doesn’t intend to export the ideology of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). In this regard, the Chinese are convenient partners; they do not care with whom to trade (with Sunnis, Shiites, Arabs, Persians or Jews ...) Only the issue of the CCP’s tougher policy towards Sunni Muslims in the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region of China (propagated by the West) bedevils the PRC’s cooperation with the Middle East countries," claimed Kashin.
However, China's role as a universal trade partner in the region had a downside. As a result, the Chinese have "limited options and cannot support one side against the other."
There was an exception where Russian-Chinese interests converged: Iran. "China does not want for the pressure on Iran to grow. We [Russia] conducted joint actions with China in this regard. For example, in 2019, joint exercises of the Russian, Chinese and Iranian navies were held in the Arabian Sea. In the Middle East China is an economic threat to Russia only in very narrow sectors. Generally, it would in Russia’s benefit to cooperate with China in this region in order to confront the United States. The US introduced secondary sanctions against Russia, punishing everyone who cooperates with us. Therefore, the more the Chinese push the Americans out of the region, the better it is for us," concluded Kashin.
Vasily Kashin (Source: Iz.ru)
Kashin's colleague Andrei Ostrovsky, also believes that China by sheer trade volume will try to eject the Americans from the region. "The Americans' position in the Middle East is weakening every day, and the Chinese power is growing."
Ostrovsky believed that Russia's position would remain unchanged by the weakening of American positions in the region. Russia was incapable of mounting major projects such as the Soviet era Aswan Dam project and in any case involvement in the Middle East was highly speculative. Therefore, "there is no point for us to meddle in all Arab affairs, except in certain cases. If we go there, our investments will turn to nothing very quickly, taking into account the explosive situation in this region."
Kirill Semyonov: Middle East Interested In Military Aid First And Foremost
Kirill Semyonov, Head of the Center for Islamic Studies at the Institute for Innovative Development, dismisses the Chinese Middle East initiative as extremely vague. "The Five Principles [of Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi] were formulated in a way in please all the Middle East countries and major external powers present in the region. There are as yet no clearly established Chinese interests in the Middle East, in contrast to the USA, Russia or Turkey." This contrasted with Africa, China’s main area of expansion. Here China had clear concepts on how to develop cooperation and channel investments.
The importance of the military dimension in the region weighed against China, argued Semyonov: "A huge demand for brute force and military aid exists in the Middle East. And China does not rely on strength, its expansion is economic. Thus, in the Middle East, Russia's main competitors are the US and Turkey, not China."
Kiril Semyonov (Source: Bloknot.ru)
A different thrust was provided by the Russian service of Russia Today that is less analytical and more a vehicle to convince people that Russia's position is correct. RT viewed the 25-year agreement less as a bid for China to obtain influence in the region and more as a mutual reaction to American bullying.
" China and Iran are strengthening their cooperation primarily because of the unfriendly actions of the US. Analysts do not exclude that further consolidation of allied relations between China and Iran may lead to an even more serious weakening of Washington’s influence in the Middle East."
America had imposed targeted sanctions against Chinese officials responsible for implementing policy towards the Uyghurs. Additionally, the American Secretaries of State and Defense, Anthony Blinken and Lloyd Austin had visited Seoul and Tokyo with a view towards shoring up an alliance against China.
America had not weakened its sanctions against Iran and The Iranian-American relations have deteriorated even more after Joe Biden administration authorized airstrikes on targets in Syria, which, according to the American side, were used by paramilitary groups backed by Iran
Nikita Danyuk, deputy director of the Institute for Strategic Studies and Predictions at the Peoples’ Friendship University of Russia, noted that Chinese import of Iranian hydrocarbons in times of the sanctions pressure from Washington helped to the Islamic republic to stabilize the economy. The expert believes that "considering this successful experience the PRC and Iran will actively resist the US pressure. Danyuk optimistically concluded: "“The converging of Iran and China’s capacities as well as their technological, trade and economic advantages may lead to the United States losing its influence in the Middle East. Lately, the Middle East countries ...frequently turn to Beijing, Tehran and Moscow, and not to Washington."
Maxim Yusin in Kommersant believes that it is the US itself that is pushing its enemies to unite: "What is happening today between Tehran and Beijing is quite natural and, I would even say, inevitable. Two months of rule by the new American administration sufficed to make it clear that its approach to America's potential opponents will not fundamentally differ from the style and methods of its predecessor - Donald Trump's team.
"The Biden administration is in no hurry to return to the Iranian nuclear deal, from which Trump unilaterally withdrew. Nor is it lifting the anti-Chinese tariffs imposed by the previous administration. Moreover, the State Department has warned that they are going to conduct a dialogue with Beijing 'from a position of strength.' This was recently demonstrated by Secretary of State Anthony Blinken and National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan, who hosted the Chinese delegation in Alaska."
Russia, claimed Yusin, is watching attentively because in previous years Chinese companies, fearing secondary American sanctions were leery about expanding trade with Russia. "The Iranian case shows that China may be changing its tune."