China was doing business with Iran long before sanctions were lifted in 2016 and then re-imposed in 2018 by the Trump administration. While the United States has retreated, China has entered and stayed.
China and Iran’s relationship isn’t new. The two countries established diplomatic relations in the 1970s; Hua Guofeng, then Chinese chairman, paid a state visit to Tehran in 1978 — a year before the Shah was deposed. Although then-United Stated president George W. Bush in 2002 deemed Iran part of the “axis of evil,” China continued to trade with the country. China has been the world’s largest importer of crude oil since 2017, and it’s not about to disengage with Iran just because Washington has slapped sanctions on it once again and is pressuring others to do the same.
Everywhere from the bazaars of Isfahan, in Iran, to the Chinese city of Yiwu, bilateral exchanges have increased as a result of China’s Belt and Road Initiative. The Yiwu-Tehran train promises to revive the ancient Silk Road by connecting China’s wholesaler city to the Iranian capital in just 14 days. This kind of infrastructure makes it even easier for Chinese goods to compete in Iranian markets.
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The country is also making inroads into Egypt, a state headed by the military leader Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. The two countries have had a diplomatic relationship since 1956, but under the Belt and Road Initiative, bilateral trade ties have deepened. A new special economic zone created along the Suez Canal promises to turn Egypt into China’s gateway to Africa and perhaps even to Europe.
And China is looking to export its cultural goods as well, expanding its controversial Confucius Institutes to the Middle East. Is China’s “soft power” reach a benign effort to teach the world Chinese culture and values — or is it a more calculated manoeuvre to replace the United States as the greatest global influencer?
Diana Fu is the host of TVO's China: Here and Now documentary series. She's an assistant professor of Asian politics at the University of Toronto and an affiliate of the Asian Institute at the Munk School of Global Affairs. Her research examines the relationship between state power and civil society in contemporary China. Fu's book, Mobilizing Without the Masses: Control and Contention in China, won the American Political Science Association’s Gregory Luebbert Prize for the best book in comparative politics.
China: Here and Now is a major, multi-part documentary series that examines the cultural, economic, and political implications of China's growing global influence. It airs on TVO Tuesday nights until November 13. Or, stream it at TVO.org.