India needs to inject fresh thinking into its West Asia policy to further its national interest and avoid being left out due to China’s foray
The Chinese president Xi Jinping’s recent visit from January 17-23 to Saudi Arabia, Iran and Egypt signal Beijing’s intentions to play a proactive role in this region. China’s ravenous appetite for energy notwithstanding, it has been very astute in dealing with the countries in West Asia. The visit was all the more significant because tensions had arisen between Iran and Saudi Arabia due to execution of a Shiite cleric, Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr by Saudi Arabia in early January 2016. This led to break in diplomatic relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Unfazed, China went ahead with the visit.
What is of interest is how once a staunch anti-communist nation like Saudi Arabia warmed up to China’s overtures. Saudi Arabia established diplomatic ties with China in 1990. This was preceded by China offering CSS-2 intermediate range ballistic missiles to the Saudis. In 2007, China sold Dong Feng(DF) 21 medium range ballistic missiles with the tacit approval of the US Central Intelligence Agency(CIA). Saudi Arabia is the largest supplier of crude to China. According to the International Monetary Fund(IMF), trade between the two countries increased from US $1.28 billion in 1990 to US $ 74 billion in 2012. China’s demand for oil is expected to grow from 6 million barrels per day to 13 million barrels per day by 2035. In order to diversify its sources, China has naturally looked towards Iran.
China played an important role in lifting the UN sanctions against Iran. It was a key negotiator with US and other permanent members of the UN to persuade Iran in capping its nuclear program. So it was not a surprise that Xi Jinpeng was the first world leader to visit Tehran after sanctions were lifted on January 17, 2016. China and Iran have agreed to enhance security cooperation through intelligence sharing, counter-terror measures, military exchanges and coordination. Iran is a crucial link in the strategically ambitious China’s ‘One Belt One Road'(OBOR) project. According to a Chinese government report, OBOR aims to connect China with Central Asia, Russia and Europe (Baltic). It will connect China with the Persian Gulf and Mediterranean Sea. With the US practically vacating the Middle East, China seeks to step in to fill the vaccuum.
As the US seeks to pivot to Asia-Pacific through Japan, allies in South East Asia and India, it is natural for China to enhance the contours of its relationships with countries in West Asia. China is in for the long haul. On the other hand, India has been trying to play catch up. It did not balance the relationships between the West and Iran during the economic sanctions. Suitably placed for negotiations role, it ceded space to China. With Chabahar project also getting delayed due to slow progress on India’s part, it shouldn’t surprise us if we lose it. Least of all to China.
Guru Aiyar is a research scholar with Takshashila Institution and tweets @guruaiyar
Featured Image: Khezr beach, Hormuz(Iran), licensed from creativecommons.org