Discourse Power | February 21, 2023
Raisi's Beijing visit: To old friends and new partners, the biggest victim, and distorted mirrors
Greetings from Jerusalem,
This issue of Discourse Power will cover Chinese analyses of the three-day visit to Beijing last week by the entourage of Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi.
In case you need some context, read this terrific roundup by SCMP’s Laura Zhou. I'm privileged to be quoted alongside Professors Ma Xiaolin and Fan Hongda, whose translations are also included below.
I also wrote about it from an Israeli perspective for the national state broadcaster Kann: Hebrew | Machine translation.
Finally, read about how the US-China tech war and the burgeoning "chip alliance" is affecting middle powers like Israel in a new report by Dr. Ariel Sobelman and TZ, my senior colleagues at the INSS's Diane and Guilford Glazer Israel-China Policy Center.
Thank you for reading,
Q: Does China’s conspicuous befriending of Iran factor into its relations with other Middle Eastern countries, such as Saudi Arabia?
TG: In the ideal world that Chinese policymakers envision, their country is uniquely positioned to accomplish the impossible: increasing its influence and presence in the Middle East without becoming embroiled in its endless conflicts. Needless to say, our world is far from ideal. While China’s engagement in the Middle East has increased across the board over the last decade, maintaining an aloof and neutral stance has proven more difficult.
For one thing, China’s vested interests have increased in tandem with the need to protect them. For another, Beijing is also observing how the United States has been pressuring its regional allies and partners to restrict their cooperation with its main “strategic rival.” This corresponds to Xi’s growing ambition to challenge US hegemony and promote the superiority of the “China Model,” which includes a “new security architecture for the Middle East,” as detailed in my recent issue brief for the Atlantic Council.
Furthermore, Iran’s adversaries see every dollar China spends on Iranian oil as another dollar for the self-proclaimed revolutionary regime to spread its terror and extremism. Around the time Xi and Raisi were discussing how to build “a community of shared future for mankind,” it was reported that IAEA inspectors discovered uranium enriched to 84% in Iran - just 6% shy of what is required to develop the bomb - and Iran attacked another oil tanker in the Persian Gulf.
For its part, Teheran was incensed by Xi’s December visit to Riyadh and the resulting eye-watering memoranda of understanding and joint statements with its Gulf rivals that named and shamed it. Consequently, Beijing has taken a slew of steps since December to assuage its concerns, the most recent of which was Raisi’s exceptionally cordial visit.
Lastly, if China threw Iran under the bus in the first joint statement, now it was Israel’s turn. Not only has the China-Iran statement whitewashed the terrorist activities and nuclear blackmail of the ayatollahs’ regime, but it also specifically pointed a finger at Israel. Clearly, China tells everyone exactly what they want to hear. In its view, this is the ideal manifestation of its “balanced” and “friendly” diplomacy. In practice, this makes it an unreliable partner, because when everyone is your friend, no one is.
- First published by the Atlantic Council in a Q&A session alongside comments by professor Jonathan Fulton and ambassador Paul Foley.
“The existing international order is undergoing dramatic changes and that global multi-polarization has become a trend, which most countries, including China and Iran, agree on”
For China Youth Daily, Middle East specialists Fan Hongda, Li Shaoxian, and Wu Sike summed up Raisi's visit to China in one word: "strategic”.
Dr. Fan Hongda is a professor at Shanghai International Studies University's (SISU) Middle East Studies Institute (MESI).
Mr. Li Shaoxian is the director of the China Institute for Arab States at Ningxia University and former vice president of the MSS-linked China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations (CICIR).
Mr. Wu Sike was China's Special Envoy on the Middle East Issue and its ambassador to Egypt and Saudi Arabia.
“Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi paid a state visit to China from February 14 to 16, at the invitation of President Xi Jinping. Raisi's visit is not only his first to China since taking office in August 2021 but also his first overseas trip of the year.
“It is also the first visit to China by a leader of a Middle Eastern country in 2023, sending a strong signal of increased cooperation between China and Iran. Former Iranian ambassador to China Javad Mansouri stated that Iran-China relations have entered a new era.
“Fan Hongda, a professor at the Middle East Studies Institute (MESI) of the Shanghai International Studies University (SISU) who is currently in Iran, told China Youth Daily-Network that the two key themes of Raisi's visit to China are promoting the implementation of the 25-year China-Iran Comprehensive Cooperation Agreement (CCA) and the Sino-Iranian [Comprehensive] Strategic Partnership (CSP).
“Speaking to Iranian state television on February 12, Mohammad Jamshidi, deputy chief of staff for political affairs in the Iranian president's office, stated that the main purpose of President Raisi's visit was to "complete the operational mechanism of the two countries' 25-year CCA signed in 2021.
“He specifically mentioned the economic aspect, stating that Iran is establishing extensive economic cooperation with China "The Iran-China Comprehensive Cooperation Document is the cornerstone of such cooperation." The mechanism for implementing the Iran-China CCA, "which had only existed on paper," he added, will be finally implemented as a result of this presidential visit.
“According to Fan Hongda, the 25-year CCA has been in place for more than two years, but its implementation has not been satisfactory to both parties due to Covid, among other factors. For the sake of the agreement's future, both parties must make more concrete and practical changes, as the significance of the 25-year agreement for the Sino-Iranian bilateral relations cannot be overstated.
“Cooperation in science and technology is also a key focus of Raisi's visit, according to Li Shaoxian, director of the China Institute for Arab States Studies at Ningxia University. Iran is one of the few Middle Eastern countries with a relatively complete industrial system [this is how China describes the advantages of its own economy]. However, due to the unilateral sanctions and blockade imposed by the US, its economy and industrial development are severely short on spare parts; thus, in addition to self-reliance, Iran requires interaction with the outside world in the field of science and technology.
“China is a major industrial power while Iran is a giant energy producer. For many years, China has been Iran's largest trading partner, and Iran is one of the most important markets for China's overseas construction projects, and that includes the export of equipment and technology.
“In 2022, bilateral trade volume between China and Iran increased, and China maintained its position as Iran's top trading partner, largest export destination, and second-largest source of imports. [In 2022, the total value of Chinese exports to Iran was $9.47 billion, while imports from Iran were $6.36 billion.]
“During his visit to China, Raisi attended the China-Iran Business Conference and met with Chinese business representatives to strengthen economic and trade cooperation between the two countries.
“Majid-Reza Hariri, president of the Iran-China Chamber of Commerce and Industry, expressed optimism about China-Iran trade and economic cooperation, predicting that in the post-pandemic era, trade volume between China and Iran will reach $30 billion this year and $60 billion in the future.
“ "Strategy" has emerged as one of the most popular buzzwords to describe the evolution of China-Iran relations. The two nations announced the establishment of a CSP during President Xi Jinping's [first state] visit to Iran in 2016.
“When President Xi met with President Raisi on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) Summit in Samarkand last September, he stated that China views "China-Iran relations from a strategic and long-term perspective."
“The Iranian government stated last week that Raisi's trip to China would be significant from an economic, political, and strategic perspective. Raisi indicated in an op-ed published in the People's Daily on Feb. 13 that Iran's political independence and its ability to maintain security and nurture human resources could be important factors in strengthening the Iran-China CSP. He also listed the country's low production costs, ample energy reserves, geographic advantages for transporting goods, and sound industrial infrastructure [for a translation of Raisi’s article, seehere].
“Chinese Ambassador to Iran Chang Hua has said in a speech at the end of 2022 that China and Iran are both old friends and new partners. President Raisi also referred to China as "an old friend" and "the best partner for future cooperation" in an article published the day before his arrival in Beijing.
“As a "new partner," Iran completed the legal procedures for joining the SCO last year and will attend the SCO summit in India later this year as a full member, in what is seen as a "final push" for its accession. Iran's membership in the SCO, an international organization focused on security and economic cooperation, is symbolic because it is the first time Iran has joined a major regional international organization since the 1979 Islamic Revolution.
“International experts believe that Iran's entry to the SCO will create new opportunities for China-Iran cooperation. Under this framework, the two sides can expand their cooperation in security, energy, the economy, and connectivity.
“The two sides could improve coordination and cooperation on critical regional issues such as Afghanistan and counter-terrorism, including by maintaining high-level contacts. It will further aid Iran's successful alignment of [its development strategy] with the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). The promotion of Iran's involvement in the BRI is one of the benefits of its membership in the SCO, Iran stated in a recent statement posted on the website of the Iranian President.
“Wu Sike, a former special representative of China to the Middle East, recently argued that Iran has a distinct advantage in terms of advancing the BRI. On the occasion of the initiative's tenth anniversary [first announced in 2013], China and Iran are expected to use Raisi's visit to further promote the high-quality development of the BRI and achieve more positive results based on its original foundation.
"The recent trend in international development necessitates further cooperation between China and Iran to promote the pluralization of the international order," Fan Hongda told CYD. He went on to say that the existing international order is undergoing dramatic changes and that global multi-polarization has become a trend, which most countries, including China and Iran, agree on.” (China Youth Daily | Another interview of Fan and Shen Shiwei via Newsweek)
"Iran's membership in the SCO will not only help it break free from the West's isolation and blockade but will also contribute to the growth of the SCO and international counter-terrorism cooperation”
In Li Shaoxian's alternate reality, the Middle East’s greatest exporter of terrorism and extremism is both a major force for "world peace and human progress" and the "biggest victim" of hegemony.
“The dialogues [between Xi and Raisi] are unquestionably a potent rebuttal to those who questioned China-Iran cooperation. The 25-year Comprehensive Cooperation Agreement, signed by China and Iran in March 2021, was meant to map out the long-term prospects and course of cooperation between the two nations and to advance the relationship's advancement into a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership on three levels: economic, political, and strategic.
“Since the two parties signed the deal, there hasn't been a shortage of skepticism, and some even think Raisi's trip to China is an indication of [Iran's] dissatisfaction with China's implementation of the deal.
“According to Li Shaoxian, the above remarks are the result of deliberate hype by Western media. "The signing of the long-term partnership is effectively a blueprint for the next 25 years of our bilateral cooperation."
“According to Li Shaoxian, the US’ unilateral sanctions and long-arm jurisdiction have severely harmed Iran's normal economic and trade cooperation with other countries, including large-scale projects signed with China.
" “President Raisi's visit to China was aimed at strengthening political mutual trust and enhancing Sino-Iranian political relations on the one hand, while promoting the implementation of long-term cooperation plans on the other."
“ "The economies of China and Iran are highly complementary and have great potential for economic and trade cooperation... Iran is one of the world's biggest victims of unilateral hegemony while also being a powerful global counter-force to hegemony and unilateralism."
“According to Li Shaoxian, "cooperation between China and Iran is beneficial to the promotion of world peace and human progress, as well as to the world's resistance to increasingly intense forces of hegemony and unilateralism."
“Iran's "Look East" strategy was outlined by Raisi in his first press conference after assuming office in August 2021. Li Shaoxian asserts that the goal of this strategy is to fortify Iran's ties with China in order to skirt the Western blockade and lessen the detrimental effects of the European and American sanctions.
“According to Li Shaoxian, Iran's "look east" has two major baselines, one of which is its integration into the Belt and Road Initiative. That’s why Iran's top brass values the BRI and sees it as a significant opportunity for national development.
“The second baseline is becoming a member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. "In theory, Iran is now a full member of the SCO and will be the ninth full member to attend the summit in India in September this year," according to Li Shaoxian.
“He stated that Iran's membership in the SCO will not only help it break free from the West's isolation and blockade but will also contribute to the growth of the SCO and international counter-terrorism cooperation.
“ "Every time I travel to Iran and other Middle Eastern nations, I hear the locals lament their inability to maintain their independence and autonomy in the face of Western sanctions and repression that pose significant obstacles to their national development."
According to Li Shaoxian, "Because of this, they try to "look east" in order to benefit from China's independent development experience." (Guangdong Party Committee’s Nanfang Network)
“At present, the global media landscape is characterized by western dominance and eastern weakness…As a result, China and Iran see each other through the distorted mirror of Western media rather than directly and objectively”
Professor Ma Xiaolin of Zhejiang University continues the victimization narrative, this time lumping China and Iran together as the poor targets of Western demonization. The solution? Increasing their discourse power through greater cooperation between Chinese and Iranian state broadcasters.
Ma is a senior professor at the Institute for Studies on the Mediterranean Rim (ISMR) at Zhejiang International Studies University (ZISU). Before joining academia and the think-tank world, he was a senior Xinhua correspondent in Kuwait, the Gaza Strip, and Iraq.
“Raisi's trip to China is significant and distinctive. First, it is his first visit to China since being inaugurated in 2021, and only the second time an Iranian president has visited Beijing since Rouhani's visit five years ago.
“Second, Raisi is widely regarded as a possible successor to Iran's supreme leader. As the supreme leader for life, he will be extra attentive to China-Iran strategic relations for a long time to come once this change of status and promotion is completed in the next few years.
“The two sides also signed two memoranda of particular significance: "Memorandum of Understanding on Promoting Cultural Heritage Exchange and Cooperation" 《关于促进文化遗产交流与合作的谅解备忘录》and "Memorandum of Cooperation between the China Media Group (CMG) and the Voice and Vision of the Islamic Republic (IRIB)" 《中国中央广播电视总台与伊朗伊斯兰共和国声像组织合作备忘录》.
“The average reader might not grasp the significance of these two memoranda, which the author believes should not be underestimated 不可小觑. China and Iran are both ancient countries with rich histories, civilizations, and cultural heritage.
“Promoting cooperation and exchanges between the two countries in these fields will significantly improve Iran's position in terms of Chinese outbound travel. This will help to attract more Chinese tourists, which will significantly boost its tourism industry and inject sustainable and healthy vitality into its economy, which has struggled due to long-standing sanctions and blockades imposed by the US and the West.
“It is especially important to deepen and expand cooperation between the two countries' leading state broadcasters. For a long time, China and Iran have been the primary targets of Western media distortions, smear campaigns, and malicious messaging.
“The reason for it is that both China and Iran insist on their independence and oppose global hegemony, as well as the fact that, at present, the global media landscape is characterized by western dominance and eastern weakness.
“Such global propagation of negative depictions of Iran and China has over time affected the media environment in both nations. As a result, China and Iran see each other through the distorted mirror 哈哈镜 of Western media rather than directly and objectively. This invariably creates a skewed perception, particularly in public opinion.
“The grand finale of Raisi's visit was the signing of a joint statement by China and Iran, which was yet another highlight of the trip. The document is divided into five sections: politics, security and defense, economy and development, education and culture, and international and regional affairs.
“It touches on nearly every facet of bilateral relations and can be viewed as a breakdown of the 25-year Comprehensive Strategic Partnership agreement signed by the two nations in March 2021 and its refinement into more specific actions. It covers specific data and timelines in a comprehensive list that fully reflects mutual trust and reciprocity.
“The Sino-Iranian joint statement not only covers all aspects and levels of bilateral cooperation, such as an agreement on fundamental concepts, the preservation of core interests, and a similar or identical outlook on international affairs and development.
“It also addresses sensitive issues like defense and public security cooperation. In addition to emphasizing a security and stability philosophy for the Gulf region, it addresses a number of contentious and difficult international issues, such as Afghanistan reconstruction, counter-terrorism cooperation, human rights issues, Syria, Palestine, the Ukraine crisis, and nuclear security.
“The joint statement urges Israel to join the Non-Proliferation Treaty and "place all its nuclear facilities under comprehensive IAEA safeguards," reflecting China and Iran's commitment to comprehensive, fair, and balanced Middle East denuclearization.
“Furthermore, the joint statement's support for Yemen's sovereignty, independence, and territorial integrity, as well as its "rejection of intervention," contribute to the geopolitical dimension of Sino-Iranian cooperation.
“Observers have noted that the above-mentioned key points and wordings on Middle East affairs are of a different temperament 略有温差 than past Chinese statements, reflecting the more active and flexible nature of China's Middle East diplomacy.
“At the same time, it should be noted that the Middle East has complex geopolitical relations and numerous contradictions, and China must actively and steadily grasp its relations with the Iranian, Arab, Israeli, and Turkish parties in order to avoid misunderstandings and miscalculations that would increase the difficulty and cost of regional diplomacy.” (ZISU)
[Here's a live example of the outcome of the "malicious campaigns" to which Ma alludes:]
Playing in the Background
Gol’e Gandom (“Wheat Flower”), a song by Iranian-born Israeli singer Maureen Nehedar based on a traditional Persian song and Jewish folk composition, is a celebration of Iranian women who used to work in the fields:
Discourse Power is written by Tuvia Gering, a researcher at the Diane and Guilford Glazer Foundation Israel-China Policy Center at the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS), a non-resident fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Global China Hub, and a Tikvah Fund’s Krauthammer Fellow. Any views expressed in this newsletter, as well as any errors, are solely those of the author. Follow Tuvia on Twitter @GeringTuvia
Thank you so much for writing this. I learned a lot from reading it! Just cross-posted to my subscribers. Cheers.