After the US assassination of Iran’s General Qasem Soleimani on Friday, Germany’s Spiegel Online observed that this is akin to a declaration of war on Iran.
Beijing’s ties with Tehran are crucial to its energy and geopolitical strategies, and with Moscow also in the mix, a broader conflagration is a real possibility.
Last year, President Donald Trump reviewed the Pentagon’s plan to send 120,000 US troops to counter Iran, and the current military buildup of deploying 3,500 more US troops to the region may be part of that plan.
Also, in 2017, a think-tank that enjoys close ties with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and the Trump White House, sent a seven-page memo outlining plans for regime change in Iran, and the current scenario seems to be taken out of this playbook.
The next question is, how will regional powers react to a US-Iran war?
China and Russia already seem to have answered that question via their war games in the Gulf of Oman last week, and the signal to the USA is that Iran is not isolated and has powerful allies.
Indeed, last year retired US Army Colonel Douglas Macgregor already warned that a war with Iran could draw in China and Russia.
Currently, China’s reaction is to urge both Iran and the US regime to maintain calm and de-escalate tensions, and closely monitor the situation.
Beijing does not want war and needs Mideast stability to pursue the Belt and Road Initiative Eurasian integration plan.
It has large stakes in Iran’s stability: It is the largest buyer of Iranian oil, China is Iran’s largest trading partner, and Iran is a key geographic node for the BRI.
Up to now, China has tried to balance its relationship with Saudi Arabia and Iran in the Middle East and set up a firewall between the two, although Iran is more significant in China’s strategic calculus given the fact Saudi Arabia and other Arab Gulf countries are still under the US security umbrella and host US military bases.
China is also against further Western-sponsored regime change in the region, and Iran is an important partner in counterbalancing US hegemony and the drive toward a multi-polar world.
Should a US-Iran war break out and the Iranian government is overthrown, it would be devastating for China’s regional interests. This isn’t about Iran. It’s about China,” the current US-Iran standoff is about something much vaster.
Geography matters in geopolitics and the Gulf of Oman separates not only Oman and Iran but also Oman and Pakistan, where China has completed a state-of-the-art port at Gwadar. It is a hinge uniting the Middle East, the South Asian subcontinent and East Asia in China’s BRI.
China is also a net importer of oil and obtains half its supply from the Persian Gulf. Yet the US Navy maintains control of the sea lines of communications. As such, China is worried about, first, US restriction of China’s oil imports over a clash across the Taiwan Strait or in the South China Sea.
And, second, events abroad that might lead to price volatility hurting the Chinese economy. Most important, China needs Iran in the “east flank” of the Persian Gulf to prevent a full blockade by the US Navy.
In the past, China’s Mideast posture was a balancing act of engaging Iran while simultaneously not alienating the USA. However, what has changed now is the rapid deterioration of Sino-US relations and decoupling over the past year in a new Cold War.
With US hostility and “maximum pressure” toward Beijing, Moscow and Tehran (all under US sanctions), Washington is driving all three to coalesce, as evidenced in the recent joint military exercise in the Gulf of Oman and the Indian Ocean.
Yet if China and Russia expand relations with Iran, they could maintain a “minimum balance” to thwart US moves. This axis would prevent the USA from implementing oil embargoes against other countries, and Washington would not shut off China’s Gulf oil supplies, since China, Russia and Iran control the Gulf’s “east bank.”
Asia Times / ABC Flash Point News 2020.