Politics makes for some strange bedfellows. This weekend, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani heads to China to participate in a Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit. Will China, insistent on pushing the United States on every turn, improve ties with the world’s leading sponsor of terrorism?
The Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), a regional security bloc led by China and Russia, is set to hold its 18th annual gathering in the Chinese city of Qingdao on Saturday (June 9) and Sunday. Iran is currently an observer member of the SCO, though it has long sought full membership.
The event will be chaired by Chinese President Xi Jinping. The participants — including leaders from four ex-Soviet Central Asian republics and two new members, Pakistan and India — will discuss matters of international security and trade, with shoring up the Iranian nuclear deal likely to be on the top of the agenda. In May, US President Donald Trump announced that the United States will withdraw from the deal, which aimed to contain Tehran’s nuclear program in exchange for lifting Western sanctions on the Islamic Republic.
China, along with the European Union and Russia, also signed onto the deal with Iran. The Chinese had been ardent supporters of the agreement, according to Kerry Brown, professor of Chinese Studies at King’s College, London.
Iran and China already have a strong relationship, as China is Iran’s biggest trading partner. The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), an ambitious project launched by President Xi aiming to link China with other parts of Asia and Europe through multibillion dollar investments in infrastructure, also plays a role in strengthening their economic partnership.
Iran is a key transport hub between Asia and Europe. According to Berger, “Iran provides maritime access to land-locked countries and if China manages to build a high-speed railway across Central Asia, the Central Transport Corridor is faster and poses less hurdles in terms of rail-track standards and customs than the Northern route via Moscow.”
The Chinese are too shrewd and too cautious to get overly cozy with the Iranians who are back to square one economically after the US reinstituted sanctions after President Trump backed out of the nuclear deal. The Chinese will undoubtedly make some concessions to Iran, but probably not much more. They don’t view Iran as the major player that the Islamic Republic sees itself.
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