With the UN arms embargo on Iran set to end in October, US attempts to extend it have been met with widespread international criticism. This is taking place during the lowest point in US-China relations in decades, giving Beijing’s views on the situation with Iran an added weight. So far, Beijing has been clear about its intentions, with a spokesperson for the Chinese UN mission tweeting: “US failed to meet its obligations under Resolution 2231 by withdrawing from #JCPOA. It has no right to extend an arms embargo on Iran, let alone to trigger snapback. Maintaining JCPOA is the only right way moving forward.”
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is clearly concerned that China will take advantage of the embargo ending. In a briefing on April 29, he said, “It’s now just several months out where China, Russia, [and] other countries from around the world can all sell significant conventional weapons systems to the Iranians in October of this year. This isn’t far off. This isn’t some fantasy by conservatives. This is a reality.” Pompeo has also turned to Twitter, musing that Beijing could send “a couple of divisions if VT-4 tanks” to Iran.
How likely is it that China will become a major arms supplier to Iran? In isolation, it makes perfect sense. The two share a comprehensive strategic partnership that highlights defense cooperation. They have long standing-diplomatic ties and historic relations going back across centuries. Iran is a huge potential market for Chinese merchants; not just for arms, but for consumer and industrial sales, as well. Resuming an arms supply relationship with Iran would provide China—a $13 trillion economy—with a few million dollars, assuming Iran’s weak economy could come up with the hard currency to purchase in significant quantities. At the same time, it would unnecessarily antagonize the United States and alienate several Iranian rivals across the Middle East, many of which are also strategic partners for China.
The US factor is an important consideration. As Jon Alterman, senior vice president at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, has pointed out, Iran provides a useful foil for Beijing; its revisionist bent keeps the US Navy tied up in the Gulf rather than rebalancing or pivoting to Asia or the Indo-Pacific, which are closer to China’s core interests. Minimal support for Iran, therefore, provides a low-cost means of keeping the US preoccupied with the Middle East, rather than devoting more resources to the South China Sea or East Sea. Selling weapons to Tehran could conceivably ramp up that leverage.
Given the deterioration of the US-China relationship, however, Beijing would likely be reluctant to antagonize Washington for such a minimal return. Despite exaggerated rhetoric about the bilateral comprehensive strategic partnership, the China-Iran relationship is tremendously one-sided. As this author has argued before, Iran needs China much more than China needs Iran. And China definitely needs a functional relationship with the United States much more than it needs a partnership with Iran. The high-water mark for bilateral trade between Beijing and Tehran this century was in 2014, at $38 billion. In 2019, with China-US relations at a low point due to the trade war, China-US trade was valued at just over $540 billion. That’s not to say that economic considerations are everything, but they are a lot, especially, in China, which has a performance legitimacy model that offers economic growth with no political reform. Selling weapons to Iran, knowing that it is a red line for the Trump administration, would come with a substantial cost to China-US relations. And, with the general election immediately following the end of the embargo, it is unlikely that China would take such an enormous risk.
Another important point is that the China-Iran relationship is much less substantial than is often portrayed. There is a huge gap between rhetorical and material support. The comprehensive strategic partnership does not have anything close to alliance obligations. Chinese leaders have a preference for a multilateral world order and are not comfortable with US normative leadership, but that doesn’t extend to unconditional support for a revisionist Iran in order to achieve it; China can achieve what it wants without Iran. As Esfandyar Batmanghelidj, a frequent commentator on Iranian economic issues, recently wrote, China has steadily been downgrading its economic relations with Iran—in the face of US sanctions, the Iranian relationship is considered more trouble than it’s worth. A report from Chatham House reinforces this, with Chinese respondents describing Iran as “not that relevant to China’s national interest… China is both preoccupied with its trade dispute with the US and at the same time frustrated with Iran… many Chinese businesses do not believe it is worth doing business with Iran, given the difficulties involved.”
Beijing also has to consider its interests in the rest of the Middle East. Yes, Iran represents a potential market, but several other states in the region have mature, established ones. Saudi Arabia and the UAE are especially important. Both have comprehensive strategic partnerships with China, buy substantial quantities of Chinese arms, and sell China a lot of energy. Jumping into an arms relationship with Tehran would jeopardize the gains Beijing’s vendors have made in other Middle Eastern markets in recent years.
Data from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) in January shows that four Chinese state-owned arms companies are in the global top twenty, with three in the top ten. That they are state-owned is an important point—these companies are expected to meet both commercial and political goals for China. They are not going to threaten diplomatic relationships relations to make more money. The Middle East is China’s second largest market, and much of this is on the back of UAV sales to Iranian enemies, such as the transferal of armed drones to the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Iraq, and Egypt.
In 2017, China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC) signed a deal with Saudi Arabia to build CH-4 drones, the Chinese equivalent to the US Predator, in the kingdom. This was only the third such facility outside China—the others are in Pakistan and Myanmar—and acts as a sales and service facility for other Middle East buyers. This is a significant market for China—not having signed the Missile Technology Control Regime or the Wessanaar Arrangement on Export Controls for Conventional Arms and Dual-Use Goals and Technologies, Beijing does not face the same kind of restrictions in UAV sales that signatory states do. As a result, across the Middle East “China has been selling the hell out of its drones.”
This matters, because, in addition to not wanting to alienate the countries it is already selling to, Beijing knows that Tehran has a sophisticated domestic UAV industry of its own. In China’s most established Middle East arms industry, Iran doesn’t represent a market. It is unlikely that China would want to alienate existing customers for potential ones, especially, knowing that Iran’s UAV needs are being met by domestic production.
So what would China possibly sell Iran if it were willing? Iran needs to upgrade its air force and there have long been rumors of China selling J-10s to Iran, but nothing has been substantiated. Iran would likely want to lean on China’s expertise in satellite navigation for military purposes. But, again, China has been working closely with Iran’s rivals to implement BeiDou 2 systems. It is not likely that Beijing would trade their established relationships for the potential one.
In the end, China is going to be looking out for China and, for now, closer relations with Iran do not offer the same range of interests that the United States and Gulf monarchies do. In the long-term that may change, so, we can expect China to keep that door open while currently making minimal outreach to Iran.
Jonathan Fulton is a nonresident senior fellow with the Atlantic Council. He is also an assistant professor of political science at Zayed University in Abu Dhabi. Follow him on Twitter: @jonathandfulton.
United Nations arms embargo on Iran
How will the world react? The Middle East Programs presents a series of global perspectives on how the world is approaching the October 2020 expiration of the UN arms embargo on Iran.