Archive for April, 2019

Belatedly posting a piece for the Financial Times excellent Beyond BRICS blog which focuses on the reality of the Chinese relationship with Iran and Russia. More complicated than is often assumed. A topic that I would like to focus on more in the future, both in terms of the reality and complexity of China’s relations with Iran and Russia, as well as broader Eurasian geopolitics. On that particular note, please check back into the China in Central Asia website which  I am hoping to awaken soon.

Separately, spoke to the Guardian about the UK’s disengagement and desistance programme, to the BBC about the extreme right wing, to the LA Times about a Uighur fighting extradition from Turkey, to De Trouw about the role of mainstream political discourse in dragging the extreme right forwards, to AFP about ISIS (which was translated into Spanish), to the Independent about a plot that was uncovered to target Europe by some Sunday Times reporters, and finally a Press Association interview was used in the MetroDaily Star, and Al Banaba. Beyond this, my recent Observer piece was picked up and translated in digest into Spanish by El Mundo.

Russia and Iran cannot always count on China

In response to US sanctions, Beijing’s own interests come first

Presidents Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping at a friendly ice hockey match between Russian and Chinese youth teams in Taijin last year © Getty

Beijing is seen by some as the financial backstop that countries can call on to bail them out when they fall foul of US displeasure and face sanctions. Yet a close examination of the cases of Russia and Iran instead shows that China is reactive to US sanctions policy, to the detriment of its supposed strategic allies.

This reflects the attractiveness of the US market, the reach of extraterritorial sanctions and the independence of some Chinese institutions from Beijing’s geopolitical interests.

It also highlights the existence of fissures between powers that are often painted as members of an anti-western alliance. They may talk with the rhetoric of allies, but their relationships are more complicated. Understanding how this will play out will be key for policymakers seeking to navigate today’s dangerous waters.

At a geostrategic level, China, Russia and Iran appear to be in lockstep. Yet notwithstanding their proximity, expressed in public shows of affection between their leaders (in particular between presidents Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin), the reality is that there are deep tensions in Beijing’s bilateral relationships with Moscow and Tehran. Nowhere are these expressed more substantially than in the economic sphere, where Russia and Iran have consistently been disappointed by the willingness of Chinese entities and institutions to invest in their countries.

Most recently, China has been hesitant in its support of Russia’s de-dollarisation policy, through a cross-border system of bilateral settlements, for fear of angering the US. The two powers failed to conclude an agreement as planned by the end of last year, with one Russian source close to the talks telling Kommersant: “From Washington’s standpoint, China’s agreement with Russia would look like it was helping Moscow evade sanctions.”

This came after reports that Moscow was ready to bet heavily on China, diversifying its foreign reserves so that 15 per cent ($67bn) were held in renminbi, leaving the Russian central bank with a quarter of the world’s renminbi holdings. This was after it had sold about $100bn of its US dollar reserves while purchasing $44bn worth of renminbi in the second quarter of 2018.

The two countries already settle 14 per cent of bilateral payments in renminbi and 7 to 8 per cent in roubles, but were seeking to increase this, and to enshrine cross-border use of the Chinese Union Pay and Russian Mir credit card systems in each other’s countries.

A similar story can be seen in Tehran, where eagerness by authorities to use Beijing to circumvent a newly hardening US sanctions policy has been met with hesitation by Chinese institutions.

This was most publicly expressed in December, when it emerged that Kunlun Bank, which is majority owned by China National Petroleum Corp, was only going to clear Iranian payments, in full compliance with US sanctions policy, until the end of April, when China’s “significant reduction exemption” for the import of Iranian oil expires. Cutting this major lifeline for the Iranian economy was believed to be the product of CNPC’s concerns about the impact of its Iranian activities on its interests in the US.

Tehran has also seen a drop in imports from China, with an analysis by Bourse & Bazaar suggesting a 70 per cent drop from October to December last year after two months of tightened US sanctions. Like Moscow, Tehran has sought to increase the volume of transactions in local currencies but its central bank does not publish the composition of its foreign reserves, so it is not clear whether this has changed.

Frustration can also be seen in the supposed benefits that Russia and Iran have sought through investments under the Belt and Road Initiative, Beijing’s global infrastructure programme.

When Total, the French oil company, withdrew from Iran’s South Pars gasfield in response to President Donald Trump’s overturning of the agreement to lift sanctions on Iran, CNPC initially stepped forward. But it has not developed the field it at the pace Tehran had hoped, and reports this year suggested CNPC may have suspended its activities. The Financial Times has reported that Iran’s Revolutionary Guards are ready to take its place.

Similarly, Ali Akbar Salehi, head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, expressed concern that Chinese developers were taking their time in redesigning the Arak heavy water reactor according to the terms laid out in the 2015 nuclear deal. He attributed this to fears of US sanctions.

While it is hard to draw a straight line between US sanctions and Chinese reticence, it is also clear that Moscow does not always find Beijing a useful infrastructure partner. In reported comments in December about the Moscow-Kazan High Speed Rail (HSR) train line, Anton Siluanov, deputy prime minister and finance minister, said he did not see the line’s economic benefits and questioned its viability. The project was proposed and signed in 2015 when China was on a global HSR push, and questions always hung over its practicability (and indeed of other HSR projects around the world). Its seeming jettisoning reflects the reality that not all Chinese infrastructure projects work out, even in countries that are supposedly strategic allies of Beijing.

There are a number of explanations for these trends. First; Chinese banks, companies and other institutions may sometimes act in ways that contradict Beijing’s view, driven by specific concerns of their own. The assumption that all of China works in lockstep to advance Beijing’s geopolitical world view does not always match up with facts on the ground. It may be hard to divine whether a Chinese institution is responding to sanctions pressure, fear of losing access to the US market or some central Beijing command, but their behaviour does not always match policy declarations.

Second, Chinese institutions drive hard bargains. In the context of Iran and Russia, China is the funder and their local counterparts the supplicants. This puts Chinese institutions in the driving seat — something they are aware of and will exploit. Commenting on Beijing’s reticence to sign a bilateral memorandum with Moscow, one source told Kommersant that in addition to concerns about the US, “China needs time to tweak the final document more to its benefit”.

Third, countries like Iran and Russia are fearful of becoming overly dependent on Beijing. They realise that opening too much to China risks flooding local markets and potentially curtailing their own development.

In Tehran, the government has gone further, with reports of authorities advising against buying Chinese goods because it amounted to “exporting jobs”.

It is clear that China’s alliance with Russia and Iran is more complicated than sometimes realised. It is also clear that US sanctions continue to have a deterrent effect on Chinese institutions.

Yet it is hard to project such complications into the future. While Beijing may have tensions with Moscow and Tehran, the three continue to be willing to support each other at a geopolitical level. If the aggression with which US economic sanctions are employed continues, alternative global economic structures will develop.

Their beginnings are already visible. Moscow is taking the firmest steps in this direction through its de-dollarisation policy. Tehran may find itself obliged to follow if it is unable to find a way out of its current impasse.

While it is clear that US sanctions may have an effect on their economies, it is not clear that they are generating the change in behaviour that Washington desires. In this context, Beijing will sense an opportunity.

This article has been modified since publication to correct the statement on Iran’s imports from China, previously stated as exports to China.

Raffaello Pantucci is director of International Security Studies at the Royal United Services Institute (Rusi)

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