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Fissures in Iran-China alliance: Island dispute exposes test of mutual non-interference

The long-running conflict involves the Greater Tunb, Lesser Tunb and the Abu Musa islands in the Strait of Hormuz. Iran has had control of these islands, which the UAE claims as its own territory, since 1971

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Fissures in Iran-China alliance: Island dispute exposes test of mutual non-interference
Image source: Reuters
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Almost a week ago, China once again said it supported Abu Dhabi’s view on the three islands that Iran and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) both claim. The long-running conflict involves the Greater Tunb, Lesser Tunb and the Abu Musa islands in the Strait of Hormuz. Iran has had control of these islands, which the UAE claims as its own territory, since 1971.

During the China-Arab States Cooperation Forum in Beijing, a statement was released expressing China’s support for the UAE’s efforts to find a peaceful solution through direct talks between the parties involved. Iranians believe there is no need for talks because they have controlled the islands for many years.

Upset with China’s stance, Iran called in Cong Peiwu, the new Chinese ambassador to Iran, for a meeting, at which the Iranian government told Beijing that it expected China to “change its position” on the islands.

After meeting Iranian officials, Beijing reaffirmed its position, stating that the original statement truly represented their views on the issue. It is not clear if China is just trying to win favour with the UAE, thinking that a serious dispute over the islands is very unlikely. However, it is clear that relations between Iran and China are not entirely smooth right now.

This is not the first dispute

This is not the first time the three islands have caused problems in the relationship between Iran and China. China has upset Iran before while trying to maintain good relations with both Iran and its rivals.

In December 2022, Beijing released a joint statement with the Gulf Cooperation Council that was very similar to this one about the three islands. Iran summoned the Chinese ambassador, says Al-Monitor. The Iranians were angry, and former President Ebrahim Raisi brought up the issue during a meeting with the Chinese vice-premier. After that, relations between the countries continued as usual, at least officially.

However, Beijing did not come out of that situation completely unhurt. Although the Iranian government quickly moved on and even praised China for helping to normalise relations with Saudi Arabia three months later, tensions still lingered beneath the surface. The statement made some people in Iran even more worried about China’s influence in their country. This caused several Iranian politicians to criticise Beijing harshly. Some politicians even suggested that Iran should reconsider its long-standing support for China on such key issues as the Uyghur crisis and Taiwan’s status.

They felt that, if China was willing to challenge Iran’s sovereignty, Iran should consider doing the same in return. After all, China has always emphasised the importance of sovereignty and mutual non-interference in its relationship with Iran. If China’s commitment to sovereignty has just been empty words, why should Tehran continue to pretend otherwise and stay close to China, at all?

Iran’s increased isolation

The reason is Iran’s isolation on the global stage. This was clearly shown by recent events at the International Atomic Energy Agency. For Tehran, maintaining its relationship with Beijing is valuable, even if it means dealing with occasional issues. On Wednesday (June 5), the IAEA voted to criticise Iran for not cooperating with the agency. China and Russia opposed this decision. This opposition did not really protect Iran as the vote for the non-legally binding censure was still passed, China does continue to support Iran on important global issues. Even such occasional support from China helps Tehran.

In a joint statement with Iran and Russia, China urged Western countries to show political will, stop escalating tensions and take steps to revive the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. This kind of support is what keeps the strong relationship between China and Tehran alive.

The problem: Tehran has been cut off from much of the world for a long time. But China has always been willing to work with Iran. Even though some people in Iran criticise China for dominating their market, China has been a crucial support for Iran’s economy, especially during times of international sanctions and political isolation.

Possible actions: They could get upset about China’s comments on Abu Musa and the Greater and Lesser Tunbs, or they could express their anger and move on. Instead, they could focus on the many economic and political benefits they gain from their relationship with China. For Iranian officials, there is no question about their preferred path. The relationship with China may have its ups and downs, but Tehran has no plans to end it.

(The author of this article is a Defence, Aerospace & Political Analyst based in Bengaluru. He is also Director of ADD Engineering Components, India, Pvt. Ltd, a subsidiary of ADD Engineering GmbH, Germany. You can reach him at: girishlinganna@gmail.com)

Disclaimer: The views expressed above are the author's own and do not reflect those of DNA

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