Akbar Jan Marwat
TWO recent developments in the region are of keys
geopolitical significance. The first is the Iran-China
strategic partnership agreement. According to this agreement, which has not been formalized yet, China has pledged $250 billion in Iran’s energy sector and another $150 billion in infrastructure development, which includes rail, roads and ports construction. This is, of course, part of the Chinese President Xi’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). In return China will get subsidized fossil fuel from Iran for the next 25 years. The second development, which is almost simultaneous, but apparently not linked to the first development, is Iran’s decision to drop India from the 628 – Kilometer Chabahar – Zahedan rail Project. The ostensible reason for India being dropped from this deal is India’s persistent excuse of lack of funds. But the real reason is American pressure, which compelled India to stay away from this project, the way it stopped it from buying oil from Iran. Although it is a major setback for India, as it deprives India of creating an alternative trade route to Afghanistan and Central Asia by circumnavigating Pakistan. The US-China new cold war, and the China-India face off in Himalayas coupled with US’s crippling economic sanctions on Iran has led to the new realignment in Asia, with far-reaching implications not only for region but beyond also. These geo-political implications have effectively pushed Iran into China’s embrace thus creating Iran – China bonhomie.
The Iran-China strategic deal involves not only the up-gradation of Chabahar Port but also the development of several other strategic ports like the Jask-e-Bander Port situated east of the strait of Hormuz. This port will for the first time in history give China leverage over a choke point in the straight of Hormuz to control and regulate world maritime traffic, if the need so arises. This can lead to undermine US naval supremacy in the Middle East. A presence in Jask will not only enable China to monitor the US navy fifth fleet headquartered in Bahrain, but in conjunction with its presence in Gawadar and Djaboti ports, Chinese presence and efficacy will increase in the Indian Ocean as a whole. The Iran-China comprehensive agreement is also important for China in context of impending US withdrawal from Afghanistan. After 9/11 Indian footprints in Afghanistan had increased considerably under the US umbrella; with US departure, the waning Indian influence will further minimize.
In spite of American prodding, India has not been able to establish a friendly relationship with Taliban, who have been suspicious of India from the very beginning. The Chinese on the other hand have established cordial working relations with the Taliban, not only to safeguard its investment, but also attempt to bring Afghanistan into its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). The greatest advantage for cash-strapped Iran from this strategic agreement with China, would be that it would be able to freely sell its oil, the sale of which has been crippled due to American sanctions. The development of its roads and rail tracts would be a further boon for the cash-starved Iran. The inclusion of Iran in BRI would be very conducive for Pakistan on many levels. It would open up the strategic space for Pakistan in the region. The common China factor would further improve Iran-Pakistan relations, thus not only mitigating the insurgency in Balochistan, but also bolstering the security of CPEC. Gawadar and Chahbahar ports will be like sister ports, as the Iranian often like to say. Pakistan on its part needs to overcome its governance and internal security challenges to benefit optimally from this new geo-political development.
There is, however, a contrary view to the Iran-China deal by some contemporary observers of international relations. And this view is not very rosy for Iran. According to this contrary view, China may not be prepared to defy American sanctions, to go lock stock and barrel with Iran. As per this view China may only go to the extent of its own interest in it’s strategic — deal with Iran. These thinkers posit that China’s principal interest is in South China Sea, where it feels insecure by its neighbours, that have largely been prompted by America to oppose China. China also fears the militarization of South China Sea by the US. According to this view, China fully realizes, that for the next 25 years, the US Dollar would remain the dominant currency across the world. China will certainly try to increase the role of Renminbi in international trade through currency swaps and other measures, but this, of course, will take a great deal of time. In the meantime sanctions imposed by the US will work quite damagingly against China, given the dollars dominance of international trade. In conclusion, according to this thinking, there seems to be little chance of China taking the risk of defying American sanctions for some distant benefits in the future. In my own opinion, although both view points contain merit, but I am inclined to subscribe to the former viewpoint. The reason for that being, that the Chinese government is heavily invested in President Xi’s Road and Belt Initiative. It is correct that China would not like to pick up a fight with a superpower at this stage but if some-body tries to stop China from achieving its full potential, it will not take it lying down. According to Chinese own admission: “If we are pushed we will push back”.
—The writer is a former Health Minister, based in Islamabad.
Akbar Jan Marwat