By BRIG N K BHATIA
In fresh inputs now available in open source domains, China and Iran are on course to chalk out a comprehensive 25 year strategic partnership based on an agreement signed during the visit of Chinese President Xi Jinping to Teheran in January 2016. Iranian President after the visit had stated the visit to be beginning of a “new chapter” aimed to build economic ties worth up to $600 billion within the next 10 years.
Though the number of investments appeared sceptical, it is only now that the details have emerged to give a semblance to the agreement concluded between the two countries in 2016. As per leaked data Iran’s Foreign Minister, Mohammad Zarif, during his visit to China in August 2019 presented to his counterpart, Wang Li, a comprehensive roadmap for a 25-year China-Iran strategic partnership based on the signing of 2016 agreement by the leaders of two countries.
The Iran-China strategic partnership is aligned to President Xi Jinping’s cornerstone of its foreign and domestic policy envisaged under Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) which is the new name for its ‘One Belt One Road’ (OBOR) initiative.
As per available information, China is to invest US $ 120 billion for upgrading Iran’s transport infrastructure beginning with the 2,300-kilometre road that will link Tehran with Urumqi in China’s Xinjiang province. This road will be dovetailed with the Urumqi- Gwadar link developed under the China Pakistan Economic Corridor under the “New Silk Road”. The road link when completed would have an ambitious plan to provide connectivity with Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan and thereafter via Turkey into Europe.
The connectivity is to be juxtaposed with development and electrification of the main 900-kilometre railway line connecting Tehran to the north-eastern city of Mashhad. Another project to be taken up under the strategic partnership is the completion of Tehran-Qom-Isfahan the high-speed train line and extending this upgraded network to link the north-west through Tabriz, which is home to a number of key sites relating to oil, gas, and petrochemicals, and the starting point for the Tabriz-Ankara gas pipeline.
Major expenditure of the US $ 280 billion would be earmarked for developing Iran’s petrochemical, oil and gas industries which have suffered immensely as a result of US-led economic sanctions. Interestingly, as per reports, China will position up to 5000 Chinese security personnel to protect its projects in Iran. As part of the agreement, China would increase the import of Iranian oil in defiance of US sanctions.
Another significant aspect of the strategic partnership is military cooperation between the two countries which includes weapons development, training between Iranian and Chinese armed forces and intelligence sharing. China would also be allowed the use of Iranian air bases although it is any body’s guess as to the utility of such measure. There are indications that the strategic agreement has the backing of Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps, which has sway over strategic matters impacting Iran.
There is however also resentment against the Iran China “Strategic Agreement” amongst
Iranians who feel that the same has not been disclosed to the Iranian parliament or people; with Iran’s former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad saying, “The Iranian nation will not recognize a new secret 25-year agreement between Iran and China,” and warned that any contract signed with a foreign country without the people knowing about it will be void.
Another important issue that is not lost on every one is total Chinese silence or reaction to the purported salient aspects of the Strategic Agreement between the two countries.
Would China risk further isolation after retching up the ante in the South China Sea, Hong Kong and Indo China border is any one’s guess. Although China may continue to show defiance to US sanctions against Iran, would it be willing to burn economic ties with middle- east and gulf nations who trade substantially with China would be hard to fathom.
On the economic front China’s overseas investments during the decade gone by averaged the US $ 200 billion annually. Its ability to commit a similar amount specifically towards a troubled region would also be suspect. The CPEC which has been in the works for over a decade with over US $ 60 billion committed to it, is yet to realise its true potential. Any further commitment to link the Xinjiang-Gwadar project to Tehran through restive Baluchistan would need careful consideration and commitment by the Chinese.
The Iran China strategic agreement signed in 2016 has not seen much movement since the two sides penned it. The details of the road map as revealed now have also been in the public domain for nearly a year now and point towards Iranian predicaments.
In essence, the current revelations point to the Iranian wish list who seem to be too eager to come out of isolation from the US-sponsored economic sanctions by piggy banking on Chinese shoulders. It also reflects on a measure of acute desperation on part of Iranian leadership as also to satisfy the appetite of the restive population which seems to be desperate to see some measure of economic revival and activity in spite of being endowed with rich mineral and natural resources.
From the Indian perspective growing Iran China relationship is a reason for worry and changing strategic landscape. It points to growing Chinese dominance in alignment with Pakistan which threatens its relations with Afghanistan.
The development of Chabaharand future of India-Afghanistan-Iran Trilateral Agreement for the development of Chabaharhas also not seen anticipated progress. Similarly, China-backed Pakistan-Iran-Taliban alignment emerging in India’s immediate neighbourhood is also a reason for Indian concern.
India’s relations with Iran cooled off substantially after India agreed to reduce its trade relations with Iran after imposition of sanctions. The visit of President Trump and increasing Indo-US economic and strategic partnership seems to have been the last straw. It is unlikely that relations with Iran would improve in the near term.
Growing Chinese footsteps in Iran will have a long-lasting impact on our relationship with not only Iran but also on Afghanistan and Central Asian nations.
(The author is an Indian Army Veteran. Views expressed are personal.)