Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif meets China's Foreign Minister Wang Yi. Photo: AFP
Asian Angle
by John W. Garver
Asian Angle
by John W. Garver

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
CHINA AND PERSIA – the latter an old name for Iran derived from the southern Pars region once used by ancient Greek travellers – are old friends and even occasional strategic partners. And in today’s delicate climate of East vs West rivalry, we may yet see this ancient alliance return.
The leaders of both China and Iran have long been focused on restoring a national greatness that was lost when Western powers remade the world during the European, Japanese and American expansionism of the 19th and 20th centuries.

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.

US President Donald Trump has ratcheted up tensions with Iran over alleged attacks on ships in the Middle East. Photo: Bloomberg

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.

Oil tanker attacks: did Iran’s ties with China just go up in smoke?

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.

Many hundreds of years later, during the 1990s, Iran’s leaders floated the idea of an Iran-China united front to drive out another common foe from Asia and the Persian Gulf – the United States.

Sanctions drive Iranian students away from US, UK and towards Asia

At the time, Iran had just come out of a costly eight-year war with Iraq – during which China supplied weapons to Tehran’s forces. China was also Iran’s most important partner in nuclear cooperation, helping Tehran’s war termination diplomacy in the UN Security Council.

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.

Chinese President Xi Jinping meets Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in Tehran in 2016. Photo: AFP

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.

For example, China has on numerous occasions suspended nuclear and advanced missile cooperation with Iran: in the 1997-98 negotiations over the renormalisation of China-US relations, following repeated confrontations over the Tiananmen Square crackdown; when president Clinton linked China’s “Most Favoured Nation” status to human rights reforms; and during the 1995-1996 US-China confrontation over Taiwan.

US-UK special relationship is more special than Xi-Putin bromance

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.

So, amid the mounting US-China and US-Iran tensions and with non-West powers such as China, Iran and India on the rise, it would be of little surprise to see an alignment of forces and civilisations emerge from Central Asia, the Middle East and the Indian Ocean littoral.
Beijing may indeed seek to strengthen its position against the US with its close ally Russia, which is already aligned with Iran. This raises the prospect of a Russia-Iran-China and even Pakistan bloc to counter US hegemony and to diffuse escalating tensions in the Persian Gulf.
Iranian burn an effigy of US president Donald Trump in Tehran last month. Tensions between US and Iran have ratcheted up in recent months. Photo: EPA

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.

But another Middle East war may also hurt China’s economic development and its alignment with Iran is likely to negate earlier efforts to develop ties with Saudi Arabia, Israel and Egypt – although Beijing may concede these relationships as necessary costs to realise the dream of restoring China as a world-leading nation.

World needs a secure Middle East, not Trump destabilising Iran

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