China and Iran

Published : Sep 07, 2007 00:00 IST

A book of remarkable sweep on the neglected subject of China-Iran relations.

Iran continues to pose a challenge to Indias diplomacy. One of the worlds foremost experts on Chinas foreign policy, Prof. John W. Garver, has written a definitive study on Sino-Iranian relations drawing on Chinese sources besides a host of others. Over a decade ago, Iran mooted an Iran-Pakistan-India-China axis. It was a non-starter. But the motivation was clear. Iran needed Asian support to stand up to U.S. pressure.

Garver has produced a work of remarkable sweep on a neglected subject. China and Iran play important roles in two of the most important regions of the world. The growing demand for oil, and Chinas role in generating that demand, and Irans and the Gulfs role in supplying that demand, add further importance to the relationship.

The U.S. has had great difficulty engaging both China and Iran. Many of its conflicts with China involve Chinas ties with Iran, Chinas cooperation with Irans missile, nuclear, chemical and advanced conventional weapons programmes. Dealing with the Iranian nuclear issue in the U.N. Security Council, the International Atomic Energy Agency, or elsewhere will require Chinas cooperation. The United States involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan, both bordering on Iran, required an understanding of Irans foreign relations, including its relations with a major power and permanent Security Council member like China. In short, the China-Iran relation is an important one for the United States to understand and for India, too.

Garver has been intrigued, fascinated by the great, magnificent non-Western civilisations arrayed about that region; China, India, and Persia. Understanding the interactions of those nations and civilisations with one another, with the West, with Europe and its outlying daughter, has been a life-long quest. A previous study, Protracted Contest: Sino-Indian Rivalry in the Twentieth Country, dealt with the China-India relationship. This book is a continuation of the quest to f athom the relations among those ancient, great, non-Western civilisations. Perhaps in an era in which modern technology is shrinking the globe and bringing the West and these ancient non-Western nationals together with phenomenal speed, such understanding will be useful. Even failing that, it is an intriguing problem. As a scholar I have tried to set aside my American perceptual normatic lenses and understand the relation between China and Iran as the leaders of those two countries have understood it.

The author succinctly sums up Chinas perception of Iran. Neither feels its civilisation to be inferior to the West. Both resent the U.S. hegemony and have bitter memories of Western imperialism. Both seek a multipolar world. These shared civilisational beliefs lead to the conclusion that the existing world order, created and still dominated by Western powers, is profoundly unjust and must be replaced by a new, more just order the post-imperial world of the subtitle of this book. China will not join an anti-U.S. alliance. The risks of a Sino-Iranian alliance are far greater than those of a Sino-Pakistan alliance. Indias smaller neighbours, viewing themselves as suffering from various forms of Indian domination, often welcome a Chinese presence as a way of demonstrating independence from the local behemoth, India. Irans Arab neighbours, however, are fearful of the IRI [Islamic Republic of Iran] and might take a more negative view of Chinese military links with Iran.

China has a far weaker commitment to Irans security than to Pakistans. Beijing judges sustaining a strong Pakistan vital to constraining India, a regional rival. Chinas interest in a strong Iran is in creating a favourable regional balance in an area fairly distant and not bordering on China, as a way of moving the world in a multipolar direction. Stated simply; China might go to war to uphold Pakistan, but not for Iran. This difference in gravity of interest is reflected in different bilateral military relations. Iran is keenly aware of the limits of Chinas support. Both Iran and China have practised statecraft for centuries. Realism has been its principal feature; ideology a convenient cover.

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