If US and Iran go to war, will Beijing be forced to take sides?

January 07, 2020 18:53
Demonstrators hold placards depicting Iranian military commander Qassem Soleimani during a protest outside the US consulate in Istanbul, Turkey, on Sunday. Photo: Reuters

The US airstrike that killed Iranian military commander Qasem Soleimani, head of the elite Quds Force of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and widely considered as the country’s second most powerful man, has added fuel to the already highly charged situation in the Middle East.

In defending his order to launch the drone attack, US President Donald Trump said Soleimani was “plotting imminent and sinister attacks on American diplomats and military personnel but we caught him in the act and terminated him”. He stressed, however, that the military action was aimed to “stop a war”, not to “start a war”.

Regardless of Trump's explanation, Iran’s retaliation has become almost inevitable.

The only question seems to be whether or not Washington and Tehran will go for an all-out war.

As both the United States and Iran are now rattling their sabers at each other, all eyes are on the Strait of Hormuz, the strategically critical passage through which one-third of the world’s liquefied natural gas and nearly 20 percent of the world’s oil production are transported from the Persian Gulf to the rest of the world every day.

Since the Strait of Hormuz is so strategically important not only to the Middle East but also to the entire world, if it is blockaded during military clashes between the US and Iran, we may not be far away from Third World War.

And perhaps it is because the Strait of Hormuz is so significant that Iran, which badly wants to break out of US sanctions, held a joint naval drill with Russia and China between Dec. 27 and 30 last year.

According to Iranian Navy Commander Rear Admiral Hossein Khanzadi, the joint exercise had been strategic for Iran as it showed Iran could form a coalition with Moscow and Beijing against Western coalitions.

So far China is adopting a relatively cautious stance on the imminent crisis in the Persian Gulf.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi has spoken out against the abusive use of military force in international relations and urged Washington to resolve the crisis through dialogue.

But Wang also suggested that China and Russia enhance their strategic communication in the face of the developing situation in the Middle East.

Apparently, Beijing doesn’t want Washington to go to war with Tehran because it will always be in its best interests for peace and stability to be maintained in the Middle East; Iran is a major player in the Belt and Road Initiative and China is Iran's top trading partner.

If unfortunately, the US and Iran do go to war, it might be inevitable for Beijing to take sides with Tehran along with Moscow in defense of its Belt and Road Initiative.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Jan 6

Translation by Alan Lee

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Hong Kong Economic Journal