China’s active diplomacy in the Persian Gulf and its effect on Iran’s national interests

Iran Review | Ehsan Sadeqi Chimeh: Before Xi Jinping became president of China in 2012, the country’s strategy toward the Persian Gulf region was generally a strategy based on China’s considerable need to energy resources, given the fact that China was considered a developing country. Therefore, there was a generally one-way relationship, which started from Arab countries in the Persian Gulf region as suppliers of energy to China, and reached China on the other end, as buyer of that energy.

Since 2012 up to the present time, China has enhanced its diplomatic activities, both within framework of economic diplomacy and soft power diplomacy. During recent years and regardless of issues related to the Persian Gulf region’s energy resources, China has been launching initiatives, including the New Silk Road Initiative and the Maritime Silk Road Initiative, to get connected to other regions. In doing this, it has been trying to get countries in the West Asia region, especially in the Persian Gulf region, on board in these initiatives. On the other hand, strategic position of countries situated in this region and determination of the leaders of these countries to expand relations with big powers while using that strategic position to boost their regional and international standing have worked as factors facilitating presence of global powers like China in this region. The United Arab Emirates is a good example in this regard.

A trip by the Chinese president to the United Arab Emirates (UAE) showed, on the one hand, that China is making an increasing effort to develop its influence and relations with the countries in this region. On the other hand, it sent the message to analysts of the Persian Gulf region that the United Arab Emirates is also trying to elevate its regional and international standing both in political as well as economic and trade terms. To do this, the United Arab Emirates is trying to diversify its relations with various power poles at the international level, including China. An example to the point was a previous trip to the United Arab Emirates by the Indian prime minister during which the two sides signed energy and trade agreements.

Xi Jinping made his first foreign trip after being chosen as the president to the United Arab Emirates a few weeks after his country hosted a forum known as the China-Arab States Cooperation Forum. This issue, that is, diplomatic exchanges between the leaders of China and Arab countries, is indicative of the two sides’ interest in developing bilateral relations. The three-day trip taken to the Persian Gulf region by Xi Jinping showed that Beijing is trying with enhanced self-confidence to bolster its global presence and influence in those regions where equations related to future foreign policy and strategy of China are of special importance.


China’s position in regional and international strategies of the United Arab Emirates

During recent years, the United Arab Emirates has been trying in various ways to elevate its regional and international standing and status. Development of relations with a big power like China, which for its turn, pays special attention to the Persian Gulf region as a strategic region, is one of the tools used by the United Arab Emirates to bolster its regional and international positions while implementing its ambitious agenda in the Persian Gulf. In the meantime, there are a number of factors, which can facilitate development of relations between the two sides. Those factors include major geographical and geopolitical advantages of the United Arab Emirates, such as Jebel Ali Free Zone and commercial port. The United Arab Emirates is using these advantages to pursue its own interests and, at the same time, get attention from other big powers. This framework can be clearly seen in the existing relations between China and the United Arab Emirates.


China-UAE agreements and recommendations for Iran

During the visit to the United Arab Emirates by China’s president, the two sides signed thirteen agreements and memorandums of understanding, the most important of which are as follows:

  • The agreement for strategic cooperation between the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company and the China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC): The value of this agreement has been estimated at about 1.6 billion dollars. By attracting foreign investment from China to its oil industry, the United Arab Emirates will be able to boost its oil production capacity and then claim a bigger share of the global oil market. The close strategic cooperation between the United Arab Emirates and Western countries, especially in the fields of international energy and finance, cannot be denied. However, this issue has not made this country ignorant of other power poles, including China. The cooperation agreement between China and the United Arab Emirates and possible development of oil production capacity of this country can be used to fill the void of Iran’s oil in the global market. However, this issue does not mean that close relations between China and the United Arab Emirates are more important than the relations between Iran and China. Iran also enjoys a special position in China’s strategic equations. Since the United States’ oil sanctions are to be re-imposed on Iran in November and given the possibility of major oil companies leaving Iran for this reason, a greater need is being felt for Iran to further facilitate presence of Chinese energy companies in the country’s energy sector.
  • The agreement for cooperation and investment between China and the UAE to bolster cooperation in the field of producing clean and renewable energy, including through construction and development of solar power plants in the UAE: During recent years, this oil-rich country has been trying to take advantage of its special climatic conditions to energize its sustainable development and produce clean forms of energy in order to reduce dependence on oil in the future. Importing relevant technologies and cooperation with China in addition to other agreements signed in this regard can be all assessed within this framework. Of course, Iran has a similar advantage as the United Arab Emirates with regard to special climatic conditions taking into account that China is the biggest supplier of solar panels in the world. Using this advantage and signing agreements for the supply of solar power with China can help Iran move more than before toward reduction of dependence on fossil fuels.
  • Two memorandum of understanding for cooperation between the two countries with regard to the New Silk Road Initiative and the Maritime Silk Road Initiative: The United Arab Emirates enjoys significant geographical and geopolitical positions and has emerged during the recent years as a major trade hub in the region. At the same time, the advanced infrastructure and technology used in the country’s ports for receiving imported goods has enabled the United Arab Emirates to play a key role in those initiatives, which are aimed at connecting China to other regions in the coming years, while also playing an important part in the West Asia region. According to available figures, about 30 percent of China’s exports to the Arab world are handled through the United Arab Emirates. It is clear that Iran has such an advantage as well. Iran is located at a strategic part of the world, which gives it the potential to turn into a regional hub for transit and transport of commodities. Of course, it will take time to facilitate the presence of Chinese investors along the Makran coast and Chabahar port, and to expand infrastructural potential of Iran’s commercial ports to enable the country to replace the United Arab Emirates. However, this is a goal, which can be achieved through good long-term planning.

In conclusion, it seems that regardless of each country’s special agenda to meet their national interests, both China and the United Arab Emirates have shared views on such concepts and phenomena as globalization and international trade. On the other hand, the Islamic Republic of Iran also enjoys its own special geographical advantages and a strategic position. Therefore, by making the most of these advantages and its position, the Islamic Republic of Iran can maximize its power and boost its regional standing, especially in the field of international trade.

*These views represent those of the author and are not necessarily Iran Review’s viewpoints.