China-Iran Strategic Nexus: Implications for Pakistan

Xi Jinping visits Iran
Credit: khamenei.ir

China and Iran are reportedly mulling over striking a strategic-cum-economic deal worth $400 billion. The yet-to-conclude deal is reportedly dropping India out of the key rail and energy projects signed four years ago. Earlier, India signed a deal with Iran in the presence of the Afghan president four years ago in 2016, according to which India was expected of investing $1.6 billion in a railroad project from Chabahar to Zahedan for linking  to Afghanistan and Turkmenistan and then to Europe.

India was also expected of investing approximately $6 billion in various energy projects. Answering the question about the reported ousting of India from these key projects, an Iranian official came up with the words that Iran did not like a partner which looked for a third party’s permission before taking any step. Adding to this, delay in payment for the proposed projects was another factor behind the dragging of India out of these key projects. The Indian presence in Iran was a key challenge for Pakistan vis-a-vis its relations with Iran, its security, economic and regional interests. In the light of these issues, among others, the reported China-Iran strategic deal may prove a blessing in disguise for Pakistan.

Pakistan shares its south western border with Iran. Both countries are the key members of ECO and OIC. Despite of all these factors, both countries observed relations of rise and fall. The main lacuna in their relations is the trust deficit. Pakistan has been trying to strike a balanced posture between the two key Muslim countries: Iran and Saudi Arabia. However, it is a naked fact that it fails somewhere in devising such a balanced approach due to its domestic compulsions. Pakistan inherited two major problems from the partition: security and paralyzed economy. Unfortunately, the latter was not made the top-most priority which is why it is still portraying the same pathetic picture. In order to keep its dysfunctional economy alive, Pakistan has been approaching foreign countries and international monetary regulating bodies for the last few decades. The lenders via their bailouts enjoy an undeniable say in the domestic and foreign policy formulation of this borrowed country. It was this reason that Pakistan sided with Saudi-led bloc while denying to attend the KL Summit held in last December. It is one of the key factors behind the trust deficit in the relationship of Iran and Pakistan. Another reason of catering the trust deficit is the vague approach of Pakistan towards Iran-U.S. wrestling. This trust deficit may be addressed by the reported China-Iran strategic deal via exploiting the Chinese partnership with Pakistan and now with Iran.

Pakistan is facing a plethora of security challenges among which the Baluch factor remains dominant. This very phenomenon has been operating for decades garnered by multiple reasons: political and economic deprivation, etc. Many of the terrorist activities in this part of the country are time and again linked with the cross border operators entering from Iran. The same concern is being tabled by Iran in the wake of the terrorist activities launched on its soil. China’s presence and its ties with Iran will improve the security situation since peaceful Baluchistan is in the best interest of CPEC. Moreover, peaceful regional atmosphere is vital for BRI and Chinese soft power expansion. Therefore, a normalisation in this disturbed part of the country may take place with the Chinese positive role.

The reported dropout of India from the key projects means the reduction in Indian influence in Iran. India’s presence in Iran has been a key challenge for Pakistan since it has been affecting the security and strategic interests of Pakistan. The Baluch insurgency is believed to be catered by external factors mainly India. The Chabahar port is perceived to be an alternative to Gwadar by India in order to link with CARs among others. Indian presence in Iran and Afghanistan seems to be a part of India’s ambition to encircle Pakistan. Therefore, the reported deal may dilute the risks for Pakistan on its western border stemming from India.

The said deal will also bring both Iran and Pakistan to the point where their strategic and economic interests would converge. Iran may take interests in CPEC which would provide security to the projects. Iran’s participation in CPEC would help Pakistan in dealing with its power shortage conundrum. China is also ambitious of ensuring a safe haven to CPEC in Pakistan and to BRI in the region. This tripartite convergence of interests will open a new chapter of regional cooperation. Apart from all these, the three countries have their stakes in Afghanistan. All of them are playing a key role in ensuring an enduring peace in Afghanistan which is in the best interest of them. Pakistan wants a peaceful Afghanistan to cater its security-cum-economic and strategic interests; for China, a peaceful Afghanistan is vital for its security and economic issues; Iran almost shares the same interests along with its care for the Shia population in Afghanistan and its anti-US posture. This convergence of their interests in the shape of a peaceful Afghanistan might be catered as a result of the cooperation which would likely be encouraged by the reported deal.

However, Pakistan may face one of the toughest challenges to its foreign policy in the form of standing neutral in the U.S.-Iran and U.S.-China tensions. Pakistan’s economic, Kashmir and FATF factors are looking for American support which might be curtailed in case of any tilt in Pakistan’s posture towards either of its arch rivals.

In a nutshell, the reported China-Iran strategic deal will bring some advantages for Pakistan notwithstanding the fact that Pakistan is not the signatory of the deal. Pakistan may take advantage of this deal while playing the Chinese card. The strategic deal will help both Pakistan and Iran in filling the trust deficit, improving their ties, launching joint efforts in addition to their joint Rapid Reaction Force initiative to deal with their combined security issues. It will relieve Pakistan of Indian suspected presence in Iran. The multibillion CPEC project would find a safe environment in Baluchistan to a considerable extent.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

Abdul Samad Khan has received his M.A. in English literature and Linguistics from NUML Islamabad, Pakistan.