Even as the Iran nuclear deal and the potential for rapprochement between Tehran and the West has inspired countless op-eds, China’s budding relationship with Iran has gone relatively unremarked upon. But on January 23, Chinese President Xi Jinping became the first world leader to visit Iran after the deal. Xi stated that he sought to open a “new chapter” in China’s relations with Iran. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said, “The Islamic Republic will never forget China’s cooperation during [the] sanctions era.”
Xi’s trip to the region, which also included stops in Egypt and Saudi Arabia, was a continuation of Beijing’s increased involvement in the Middle East. It may be less dramatic than other great powers’ forays into the region (Russia’s recent intervention in Syria, for one), but it is no less significant. It signals that Washington’s decades-long period of unchallenged preeminence in the Middle East is drawing to a close.
China’s commercial ambitions in the Middle East are expanding. As the United States becomes increasingly energy self-sufficient, China has moved in the opposite direction. It is projected to overtake the United States as the world’s largest energy consumer by 2030, as its demand for imported oil grows from six million barrels per day to 13 million by 2035. The bulk of its new supply is likely to come from the Middle East, which China also needs for tapping new markets to produce its goods, invest its capital, and secure new labor. It is in this context that China has articulated its Middle East strategy, focusing on areas like energy cooperation and infrastructure investment. It has sought to integrate the region into its One Belt, One Road initiative, which Xi announced in 2013 and which would connect China with Eurasia.
However, China’s expanding economic interests create strategic vulnerabilities, which have increasingly drawn Beijing into the region diplomatically and militarily. country’s involvement in the Iran nuclear talks increased partly because of its mounting concern that a U.S.-Iranian or Israeli-Iranian conflict could endanger oil exports through the Strait of Hormuz. Fifty-two percent of China’s oil imports come from the Gulf region. China has recently, on several occasions, hosted representatives of opposing Syrian factions. In 2013, it even took a stab at an Israeli-Palestinian peace plan during separate visits by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas. In all cases, however, China did not deviate from conventional policy approaches but instead used the opportunities to showcase its growing regional and global clout.
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