What are the consequences of China’s neutrality on Iran?

If war did escalate between the US and Iran, the greatest fear among many in the West is that Russia and China would collaborate with the latter, resulting in a devastating conflict. But fortunately for Washington, Beijing’s muted response to the US’s killing of leading Iranian general Qassem Soleimani suggests China is still not ready to collaborate with Russia in taking a leading role in the Middle East’s continuous wars.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi described the US’s action last Friday as ‘unacceptable’, but he refused to condemn it like his Iranian and Russian counterparts, Javad Zarif and Sergei Lavrov.

From Beijing’s perspective, their neutral position has prevented them from clashing with Washington on another matter where both sides fail to see eye-to-eye. China is already engaged in trade negotiations with the US that seek to end the 18-month trade war between both countries. The Chinese Government has so far done little to resist US President Donald Trump’s attempt to increase pressure on Tehran, but it did defend the 2015 Iran Deal and criticised America’s unilateral sanctions.

Chinese President Xi Jinping has increased his nation’s military cooperation with Russia and expanded its relations with Iran, but it cannot afford to take sides when it also relies on Saudi Arabia, the Islamic Republic’s rival, for oil. Therefore, Beijing has managed to avoid upsetting either side and can still depend upon the Saudis for natural resources. Shi Yinhong, an adviser to China’s cabinet and also a professor of international relations at Renmin University in Beijing, told Bloomberg they are ‘caught in a dilemma.’

China’s lack of intervention provides the US with an opportunity for it to flex its muscles in the Middle East. Although Trump tweeted in June that he would like to see Xi ‘come off the fence’ and start protecting their own oil shipments through the Persian Gulf, it should work to the US President’s advantage that they do not choose sides. If Tehran knew they could depend upon Chinese support, it would mean America would face pressure from Moscow and Beijing to ease its sanctions on Iran.

China also has the advantage of being a member of the UN Security Council. This provides Beijing with a platform to condemn US actions in Iran, which is what Washington accused them of doing when both China and Russia blocked a Security Council resolution condemning the attack on the US embassy in Baghdad that precipitated Trump’s decision to order the strike at Soleimani. The fact that they have not used their position at the UN to thwart US action in Iran altogether shows that they want stability in the Middle East.

Beijing’s failure to assert itself in the Middle East represents a devastating blow for the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, which helped China and Russia enhance their military ties in recent years. Xi described Russian President Vladimir Putin as his ‘closest foreign colleague.’ But because both sides have failed to demonstrate a united front over Soleimani’s killing, this proves that they both have different intentions in the Middle East.

In May 2019, Haaretz reported that the Israeli Finance Ministry published a controversial tender to build a new water desalination plant dubbed Soreq B, and the Chinese Hutchinson Company bid for the contract. With Jerusalem being a staunch opponent of Iran, Xi has also avoided upsetting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a time when both nations are increasing their economic cooperation.

But it also means that Russia and the US are left competing for influence in the Middle East. The further Trump retaliates against Iran’s actions, the more defensive Putin will become. This will further damage relations between Russia and America.

China’s lack of intervention in Iran could have significant consequences. But with Trump keen for Beijing to choose a side and Russia being the only superpower resisting American influence in the Middle East, it will be difficult to argue that Xi can delay deciding on this matter forever.