Who would win a US-Iran war? A strong and peaceful China
- If Washington pours its money into a Middle Eastern conflict, it will compromise its ability to ‘pivot to Asia’
- Meanwhile, Beijing could play catch up on military capabilities and become too powerful to be challenged by Washington
But well before this time of “national humiliation”, both China and Iran had a long history of dynastic empires, which ruled across the Middle East and greater East Asia.
In China, it was the Han, Tang and Qing empires; and in Persia, it was the Parthian, Sassanid, Abbasid and Safavid empires.
In those ancient times, it was the linkage of camel caravan routes south of the Caspian Sea that were hugely important to China’s overland Great Silk Road from East Asia through Central Asia, the Middle East and well into Europe.
Helped by seaborne junks that powered across the Indian Ocean on the monsoon winds, the route through Persia became one of the world’s most vital until the maritime revolution brought by the Portuguese and Dutch in the early modern period.
But goods trading aside, there was also a rich cultural exchange between Persia and China during this period of shared greatness.
Persian clothing, poetry, spices and cuisine, dance and even magic (the word magic comes from medieval French and more remotely from “magus” – the singular form of “maji” – meaning Zoroastrian priests who were skilled in sorcery) all contributed to the culture of the Tang empire.
Being one of ancient China’s most progressive periods, the Tang era benefited greatly from the thriving trade ties with Central and West Asia, and beyond.
Persians were key to fostering this cosmopolitan culture, serving as intermediaries between Chinese merchants in East Asia and Italian merchants in the far west of Constantinople (now Istanbul) and the Levant (western Mediterranean).
The Chinese artefacts that flowed west were largely paper and printing.
In terms of strategic cooperation, China and Iran have an amicable yet cautious history. When confronted by the Arab and Muslim invasion of 637CE, Persia’s Sassanid rulers sought military support from Tang China.
China declined to send reinforcements, and instead granted asylum to a Sassanid prince and built a Zoroastrian temple in northwest China where Persian religious rituals continued.
By 651CE, the Muslim conquest of Persia had led to the end of the Sassanid empire, the eventual decline of the Zoroastrian religion, and later the conquest of much of Central Asia.
But under the leadership of Deng Xiaoping, China declined to join Iran’s struggle against the US. Deng was instead concentrated on his masterful economic development drive, known as the Four Modernisations, and knew confrontation with the US could spoil the macroclimate he needed for China’s rise.
Iran is a nation of considerable long-term power potential and, like China, harbours a deep animus against US domination of Asia. But China in recent decades has been very careful not to let this animosity cast it into the Iran camp.
But Beijing may still change tack on its support for Iran.
China’s policies are historically founded on calculations of present and future interests, not on memories of the past, no matter how glorious. And over the years, Iran’s leaders have come to understand China’s pragmatic calculus.
War between the US and Iran would bring about major shifts in the world order. First, Washington’s ability to continue its pivot towards Asia would be drained as it focuses on conflict with Iran.
Second, the gap between US and Chinese military capabilities would narrow as Washington utilises war assets in the Middle East while China steadily pumps out new navy destroyers, cruisers, submarines and aircraft carriers.
Such a result would see the Chinese-Iranian partnership lauded and celebrated as a historic cooperation. Ancient Chinese visitors to Parthian or Sassanid Persia, and Persian visitors to Han and Tang China would be discovered and eulogised.
Artefacts of ancient trade and transmission of religious and scientific ideas between the two great Asian centres of civilisation would be unearthed and extolled.
And the final, implicit point would be the brilliance of Asian civilisations before the arrival of Western imperialism, and the liberation of Asian peoples from the crumbling remnants of those regimes. ■
John W. Garver is Emeritus Professor at the Sam Nunn School of International Affairs, Georgia Institute of Technology