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China reassures Iran of support after U.S. drone killing

The late Qasem Soleimani.  

From December 27 to 30, China, Iran, and Russia held a joint military exercise in the Indian Ocean and Gulf of Oman. On December 31, 2019, China’s Foreign Minister Wáng Yì 王毅 met his Iranian counterpart in the Chinese capital and said, “Beijing and Tehran should stand together against ‘unilateralism and bullying.’”

Last week on Friday, a drone strike ordered by Donald Trump killed Iranian Major General Qasem Soleimani, head of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard’s elite Quds Force, near Baghdad’s airport.

The Chinese foreign ministry’s immediate reaction was to express concern about the growing tensions in the Middle East, and opposition to the use of force in international relations. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo tweeted that he called Yáng Jiéchí 杨洁篪, senior Chinese Politburo Member with responsibilities in foreign affairs, “to discuss Trump’s decision to eliminate Soleimani in response to imminent threats to American lives.” Per state-owned Xinhua News Agency (in Chinese), Yang called for restraint, especially on the part of the United States. Today, Chinese state media continue to urge the U.S. “not to abuse force.”

Comments on Chinese social media run the gamut (in Chinese). Perhaps the most common reaction is “I wish for world peace” (愿世界和平 yuàn shìjiè hépíng). But many strongly criticize the U.S., and support Iran for standing up to American hegemony. Another often repeated sentiment is that the American government is the “real terrorist.”

Schadenfreude that the U.S. will be drawn into another costly conflict, allowing China to get even stronger, was another common reaction on social media. The Chinese government certainly wasted no time in using the Soleimani killing to reassure Iran that China has its back: On January 4, Foreign Minister Wang Yi took a telephone call from Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif. Per the official Chinese readout:

Wang Yi said that the military adventurist act by the US goes against basic norms governing international relations… China will continue to uphold an objective and just position and play a constructive role in safeguarding peace and security in the Gulf region of the Middle East.

What happens next?

Although Trump’s decision to kill Soleimani has plenty of support amongst ideologues in Washington, D.C., and amongst some of Iran’s enemies in the Middle East, most observers seem to agree that the region has suddenly become much more volatile.

These are the factors driving China’s decision making:

  • Appetite for Iranian oil.
  • The Belt and Road Initiative to build global transport and commerce infrastructure: Iran sits near its geographic heart.
  • Beijing’s need for Muslim countries to support its policies in Xinjiang that have interned more than a million Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities.
  • Cooperation with Russia: mutual interests — and some differences — on regional geopolitics.  

What we can expect in the coming months: more of the same. Beijing will not defend the specific actions of Iranian military figures like Soleimani, and will always urge restraint. Instead, Chinese diplomats and state media will maximize the negative publicity for the United States, contrasting America’s disrespect for the sovereignty of other countries with China’s non-interference and reliability as a partner.

To conclude: China will quickly take advantage of commercial and political opportunities that open up with a possible American retreat from Iraq, or a U.S. war with Iran, or the general uncertainty caused by Trump’s decision to kill Qasem Soleimani.

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