Iran-Pakistan Tensions and China’s Diplomatic Cards

Iran-Pakistan Tensions and China’s Diplomatic Cards

The bilateral relationships among the SCO members are undeniably complicated, and Beijing’s ability to quickly ease tensions between them will not always be a walk in the park.

 

Iran and Pakistan’s unprecedented cross-border strikes on January 16 and 18 were as unsettling as they were surprising. Although Tehran has long seen Baloch separatist groups operating in Pakistan’s Balochistan province and Iran’s Sistan and Balochistan provinces as a grave threat, officials in Islamabad were caught off guard when Iran fired a barrage of missiles at two Jaish al-Adl bases without coordination with Pakistan. The Pakistani army then retaliated by firing drones and missiles at the Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA) and Balochistan Liberation Front (BLF) targets near the Iranian city of Saravan.

Fortunately, to their credit, Tehran and Islamabad quickly de-escalated the crisis. Iran’s Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian’s recent visit to Pakistan, the return of ambassadors, and officials in both Tehran and Islamabad avoiding inflammatory rhetoric underscored Iran and Pakistan’s shared interests in avoiding further escalation.

 

Given Iran’s economic problems and ongoing conflicts amid escalating tensions in the Middle East, Tehran knew that risking all-out war with its nuclear-armed neighbor to the East would be unwise. Similarly, Pakistan, with its own domestic challenges, had no desire to see its tensions with Iran spiral out of control.

“The de-escalation process, I believe, was mostly [a result] of the calculation on both sides that it [would] not [be] a good decision to escalate beyond what had already happened and based on the existence of direct communication lines [between Iran and Pakistan],” Dr. Abdolrasool Divsallar, a visiting professor at the Universita’ Cattolica del Sacro Cuore in Milan, noted.

After Pakistan’s retaliatory strike, China offered to play a “constructive role” to ease tensions. Four days later, Beijing said it was in close contact with both Iranian and Pakistan officials regarding the situation, with Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin calling both Iran and Pakistan China-friendly countries and asserting that “China is committed to upholding regional and international peace and stability” while supporting Tehran and Islamabad “in continuing to bridge differences through dialogue and consultation.”

Beijing’s response was unsurprising, given China’s host of interests in seeing Iran and Pakistan maintain a peaceful relationship. Due to its prioritization of relations with both countries, Beijing maintained a neutral stance on cross-border strikes and prioritized stabilizing the situation as quickly as possible through diplomacy.

For Pakistan, China has become its “all-weather ally,” with Sino-Pakistani relations having significantly deepened throughout the last decade, particularly in defense and investment. Arms sales are a crucial aspect of this bilateral relationship, with over half of China’s weapons exports going to Pakistan from 2018 to 2022. Furthermore, Pakistan’s importance to China can be seen in the centerpiece of Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), a $50 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) linking Kashgar in China’s Xinjiang province to the port of Gwadar in Pakistan, giving the Chinese access to the Arabian Sea and the Middle East. Furthermore, as the number one foreign investor in Pakistan, China has invested heavily in the port of Gwadar and the gold mine at Saindak, making Beijing a vital partner in the development of Balochistan province.

“China is heavily invested in turning Gwadar into a major seaport, which is envisioned to become a key trade hub. Balochistan is also a focus for energy projects under CPEC. These include coal, wind, and solar energy projects aimed at helping Pakistan overcome its energy shortages,” Dr. Enrico Fardella, director of the Italy-based ChinaMED Project and associate professor at the Department of Human and Social Sciences at the University of Naples “L’Orientale,” told this author.

The Sino-Iranian partnership has also grown. As Western sanctions continue strangling the Iranian economy, Tehran looks to Asia to circumvent the pressure from Washington and European capitals. China is the most critical part of this economic and geopolitical pivot by becoming the top buyer of Iranian oil, helping Iran weather U.S. sanctions, at least to a certain extent.

With similar geopolitical attitudes toward the United States, Beijing and Tehran have a mutual interest in accelerating the creation of a multipolar world. Giving up on rapprochement with the West, Iran’s government is now focused on bolstering its relationships with China, Russia, and “Global South” countries, including Iran’s immediate neighbors. In Iran’s eyes, China is an ascendant power while the United States’ power wanes, prompting the Iranian leadership to see its ties with Beijing as highly critical to the Islamic Republic’s future.

China’s valuable relationships with both countries give Beijing an incentive to play a proper diplomatic role in ensuring that tensions between Pakistan and Iran are carefully managed.

“China has good relations with both Pakistan and Iran. It certainly does not want to alienate either side by supporting the other. Beijing would undoubtedly like to avoid any further conflict, much less an escalating one, between Tehran and Islamabad,” Dr. Mark Katz, a professor at George Mason University’s Schar School of Policy and Government, told this author.

Chinese Interests Along the Iran-Pakistan Border

As a major investor in Pakistan’s Balochistan province, China has interests that could be undermined by tensions between Islamabad and Tehran, which could disrupt the local economy on the Pakistani side of the border. “[Pakistan’s Balochistan province] is…rich in natural resources, including minerals. Chinese companies are engaged in several mining activities, extracting valuable resources like gold, copper, and coal. Any instability in this area threatens the safety and viability of these investments,” explained Dr. Fardella.

In the area near Iran and Pakistan’s border, militant and separatist groups, including those targeted amid last month’s cross-border strikes, pose a threat to Chinese interests. Although the BLA has spent years waging an insurgency against the Pakistani state to establish an independent Baloch state, Beijing’s alliance with Islamabad has resulted in the separatist militia viewing China as its enemy, too. The BLA’s attacks against Chinese interests in Pakistan began in November 2018, with the group attacking China’s consulate in Karachi. Subsequently, the BLA has targeted CPEC installations and Chinese engineers, businessmen, tourists, and educators in Pakistan’s Balochistan and Sindh provinces.

As the government in Beijing sees it, growing insecurity in China’s neighbors to the west—Pakistan and Afghanistan—can also negatively impact the situation in Xinjiang, making it harder to contain unrest and violence in this Muslim-majority part of China. In the interest of the BRI and CPEC’s chances for long-term success, Beijing sees security near Pakistan's, Iran's, and Afghanistan’s borders as critical to China’s economic and geopolitical interests.

In this grander quest to counter what China, Pakistan, and Iran consider grave security threats, Beijing sees its counterterrorism cooperation with Islamabad, Tehran, and the Taliban regime in Kabul as necessary for tackling the cross-border movement of violent extremists. This brings us to the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and the role of this institution in Chinese foreign policy.

The SCO’s Role

As a Chinese- and Russian-led multilateral body with critical security dimensions, the SCO was established around the time when the George W. Bush administration launched the “War on Terror” in Afghanistan in 2001 following the 9/11 attacks. Ultimately, the turmoil plaguing Afghanistan was a primary reason why China and other countries saw establishing the SCO as necessary. Washington’s fight against terrorist groups such as Al Qaeda and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan made it easy for Chinese officials to frame the SCO’s role and purpose within the context of terrorism threats in Central and South Asia.

The SCO is responsible for ensuring that its members cooperate when it comes to bolstering security and combatting terrorist, separatist, and extremist groups that threaten the body’s member-states. Therefore, any armed conflict between two of the SCO’s members could seriously challenge the steadfastness of the SCO and China’s capability to continue emerging as a global leader. With Iran and Pakistan now both SCO members, much was at stake for the organization and China’s own interests in terms of the cross-border strikes last month.

“China's role in resolving or failing to address such conflicts impacts its reputation as an emerging global leader. Its ability to manage and mediate in these conflicts is closely watched as an indicator of its global influence and responsibility,” said Dr. Fardella.

That diplomats from Islamabad and Tehran successfully and quickly found common ground and averted some catastrophic all-out war between the neighboring Islamic Republics came as a massive relief to Beijing, which expressed concerns about the US’s ability to exploit hostilities between Pakistan and Iran.

If tensions between Iran and Pakistan heat up again and Tehran and Islamabad cannot quickly de-escalate them through dialogue at the bilateral level, China could step in as a diplomatic bridge. However, that was not necessary last month. As Dr. Katz explained, under such circumstances, China would strongly urge Tehran and Pakistan to refrain from taking military action against territory in the other country. Beijing would offer to mediate while seeking to convince both Islamic Republics that only Washington could stand to gain from such military action being waged by either side against targets across the border.

“I don’t see China, though, either offering economic incentives or threatening the use of force in order to stop the conflict. As when China helped Iran and Saudi Arabia restore diplomatic relations, Chinese mediation can only be successful if Iran and Pakistan themselves want to prevent further incidents,” added Dr. Katz.