By Brandon Cleary
Any military support given to the Iranian government enhances its ability to protect its investments, deter oversight of its activities and, in turn, degrade the current sanctions regime imposed on the country. This calculation is as clear to those in Beijing as it is to the rest of the P5+1, which suggests that the Chinese government may be acting on ambitions not shared by fellow negotiators. Traditionally, the Chinese government has had few reservations about providing arms to Tehran and its recent actions continue this trend. Beijing’s tacit support of the sale of weapons materials from private Chinese businessmen to Iran, and recent joint military exercises appear to represent a significant step by Beijing in support of Iranian military capacity.
A Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLA-N) guided missile destroyer and a guided missile frigate of the 17th Chinese naval escort taskforce departed from the Bandar Abbas Port in southern Iran on September 24 after five days of joint maritime exercises with Iranian military counterparts. The “friendly visit,” as it has been dubbed by PLA-N officials was, in fact, an unprecedented step in China–Iran military cooperation. The stated goal of the visit was to improve cooperation and understanding, but specifically focused on “enhancing maritime exchange of information and intelligence, relief and rescue operations, operational capabilities and power sharing between the two countries navies,” according to Iran’s semi-official Fars News Agency. As military relations between the two regional powers continue to improve, the United States and others working to keep Iran at the negotiating table must consider the possibility that these types of exercises could represent a substantial escalation in Beijing’s willingness to risk undercutting sanctions in order to further secure economic ties with Tehran.
If sanctions on Iran were to be ramped up, as added pressure for the ongoing P5+1 negotiations, the Chinese government stands to potentially lose, among various other trade benefits, a significant share of its current crude imports. Iran supplies around 10 percent of China’s total oil imports and this figure is increasing daily. This considerable dependence on Iranian energy exports has come about as a result of temporary exemptions carved out of the sanctions regime for the Chinese government, but leaves both countries vulnerable to a reassertion of trade restrictions. Increasingly unwilling to accept this cost of business, Beijing may be seeking new ways to protect its interests, including through military means. Enhanced joint maritime capacity combined with basing capabilities and increased technology transfers that could result from continued military to military cooperation would further insulate China’s economic interests in the region from sanctions by raising the cost of outside intervention. At the same time, this would serve to strengthen a lifeline for Iran and deflate the negotiating posture of the P5+1.
Beijing has made no secret of its intentions to enhance its strategic relationship with Tehran and this latest development appears to be the first concrete example of its objectives. At the very least, by further engaging with Iran, Beijing is signaling that relations can improve between the two countries without Iran first making meaningful progress in the ongoing nuclear talks. This represents a dangerous signal as western negotiators seek leverage against the Iranian regime. To date, economic engagement has been the principal concern of western countries with regard to China–Iran relations. Attention must now be turned to China’s willingness to boost not only economic ties but military ones as well, an escalation that will have untold implications for further negotiations between Iran and the P5+1.