China and the United States have been at trade war ever since Donald Trump became the president. Following protracted negotiation, a deal was reached in the middle of last year. Both sides expressed satisfaction and vowed to continue bilateral trade. But the outbreak of Covid-19 and China's alleged procrastination on sharing information about the origin of the virus and extent of casualties strained its relationship with the US. Though Trump downplayed the horrendous impact of the virus at the beginning and predicted that the virus will miraculously disappear soon, he was proved miserably wrong when the virus pervaded like wild fires and thousands of people succumbed to infection. He accused China and the World Health Organisation for not alerting the US and the international community about the transmission of the virus from animal to human body. China disavowed malfeasance and sent tons of medical supplies to the United States to help cope with the precipitous situation. Trump was not convinced. He decided to withdraw from WHO.
Trump vehemently opposed the Iran nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), even before he was elected president. He was most likely advised by Israeli leaders that the deal fell short to deter Iran from acquiring nuclear arsenal. In 2018, Trump withdrew from the JCPOA much to the chagrin of European signatories of the agreement. Trump did not stop here - he re-imposed economic sanction against Tehran and advised the Europeans to follow the suit. The EU countries opposed unilateral action of the United States and sought to prevail upon Tehran against enriching uranium. The US sanction began to impact Iran's export of oil and halted foreign investment. Its currency became devalued, prices of essentials soared, and people began feeling the pains severely. The Iranian government felt betrayed by the US and declared that the United States can never be trusted on any international commitment.
China has been the largest trading partner of the United States. It has achieved tremendous economic progress during the past three decades. It's foreign exchange reserve has exceeded $3.00 trillion and made massive investment in several countries in the Pacific, South Asia, Middle East and in Africa. China has long ago acquired nuclear capability and upgraded its military with modern hardware. Its economic strength coupled with military capability enhanced its territorial ambition. China's claim on South China Sea has invoked territorial disputes with Japan, Vietnam, South Korea and the Philippines. It claims Taiwan as part of mainland China and condemns US sale of weapons to Taiwan as provocation aimed at destabilising China. In mid-June China fought with Indian troops in Ladakh.
The assassination of Iranian General Soleimani at Baghdad airport in January by US drone strike was denounced as transgression on Iraqi sovereignty. People came out in protests and demanded expulsion of American troops from Iraq. The recent attacks on Iran's centrifuges at Natanz and missile testing sites and series of explosions damaging security installations underscored that Washington-Tele Aviv nexus will do its best to deny Tehran nuclear capability.
Given the dire economic situation Iran has been undergoing because of US imposed sanctions and large number of people infected with Covid-19, Iran has been in quest of alliance with a country which could defy American pressure, resist embargos and would be willing to be its partner in trade and security. In the past two weeks, incidentally there has been escalation of "war of words" between Washington and Beijing. Beijing has been accused of bulldozing "one country two systems" in Hongkong in order to bring the former British colony under its full control. Last week, Beijing announced sanctions on four US officials for "interfering in China's internal affairs". It also imposed unspecified sanctions on Lockheed Martin, an American defence contractor for continuing arms supplies to Taiwan. Earlier in the week, the State Department banned three Chinese officials from visiting the US and froze any assets they have.
The State Department announced last week that it has approved $620 million to Taiwan to refurbish its "Patriot surface to air" or PAC-3 missiles and extend their operational life to 30 Years. China's Foreign Ministry spokesman reacted saying, "China is firmly opposed to US arms sales to Taiwan. We urge the United States to earnestly abide by one-China principle, stop arms sale to Taiwan and sever military ties with Taiwan." Foreign Secretary Mike Pompeo remonstrated that most of China's maritime claims in the South China Sea is "completely unlawful." He added, "America stands with our Southeast Asian allies in protecting their sovereign rights to offshore resources, consistent with their rights and obligations under international law. We stand with the international community in defence of freedom of the seas and respect for sovereignty and reject any push to impose 'might makes right' in the South China Sea or the wider region."
As a result of the punitive actions followed by retaliation and counter-retaliation by Beijing and Washington, the ground has set been for Iran and China to form an alliance that has been brewing in recent years against the United States.
Last week, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif acknowledged that his government has been in negotiations with China over a 25-year strategic partnership that could involve about $400 billion investment in Iranian economy. According to the New York Times, "The pact between the two countries would be far reaching: it would increase intelligence sharing and security cooperation, including missions in Syria and Iraq. It would also see Chinese companies expand their footprints in Iranian railways, telecommunications, while securing for Beijing a steady and discounted oil supply for the next quarter-century. China would also develop free trade zones in strategic locations in Iran, further binding the country into Beijing's sprawling Belt and Road global trade and development initiative." China's Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian defiantly said, "We stand ready to work with Iran to steadily advance practical cooperation."
Iran seems confident that the treaty would be ratified by its parliament. The hard-liners will not like it, but they will not have a better option to suggest. Given the choice between American hegemony and Chinese coercion, they will opt for the later.
In May 2016, Iran had concluded a tripartite agreement with India and Afghanistan on constructing 628 Kilometers railroad connecting Chabahar port to Zahedan along the Afghan border. Iran has now decided to get the project implemented by itself without India's participation. It is not yet clear whether excluding India from the "railway project" has been a corollary of the 25-year strategic partnership with China.
The arms embargo forbiding any sale or procurement of assault weapons or military hardware by Iran would expire in October this year. The United States has been lobbying to extend the embargo but met with tough opposition from China. The Chinese Representative at the United Nations condemned Washington's unilateral abrogation of JCPOA in which his government was also a signatory. He made it clear that China would veto any resolution that would call for arms embargo against Iran. Russian Representative announced on July 16 that as per JCPOA, the arms embargo against Iran would cease on October 16, 2020 and any attempt to renew the embargo would be repugnant to the agreement; hence, Russia will oppose it.
The Syrian resolution calling for humanitarian assistance to Syria was vetoed by Russia and China last week at the Security Council. This underlines the fact that China has begun to take unyielding position on issues that involve Iran in one way or the other. Should Beijing-Tehran coalition move forward, there will be erosion of US influence in the Mediterranean and Persian Gulf regions.
The Trump administration has pursued a policy of disengagement, repudiation of international agreements concluded by previous administrations and advanced narrow nationalism. In the past three and half years, the United States abrogated the JCPOA, Trans Pacific Partnership Agreements that brought together 12 countries in Asia and the Pacific and replaced North American Free Trade Agreement. It has withdrawn from United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) mandated to provide humanitarian assistance to vulnerable population in Palestine, United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), United Nations Criminal Court of Justice, Paris Climate Agreement, and World Health Organisation (WHO). Washington's partnership with North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) is no longer unequivocal. It warned the Europeans that the United States could not be taken for granted to ensure their securities. Washington's commitment to the United Nations is not absolute and threatened to slash its contribution for not upholding America's international agenda.
The United States is now isolated, and realignment of adversaries will only compound its worries.
Abdur Rahman Chowdhury is a former official of the United Nations.