How China benefits from Trump’s Iran confrontation

The Chinese government has wasted no time in capitalizing on the Trump-ordered killing of Qasem Soleimani, the most important figure in Iran’s military.

Over the weekend, China assured Iran that Beijing 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.

Today, Chinese state media continue to urge the U.S. “not to abuse force.” On Twitter, Brookings Institution academic Rush Doshi asks:

Many Chinese academics argue a “strategic period of opportunity” emerged from the confluence of U.S. distraction following 9/11 and the unique opportunity provided by WTO accession. Wonder how they’ll regard a possible conflict with Iran with flailing efforts at decoupling.

There is no doubt that Chinese state and social media will be awash with schadenfreude if the U.S. continues to be drawn into another costly conflict, allowing China to get even stronger.

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 policies.  

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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