China-Iran Military Relations at a Crossroads
Publication: China Brief Volume: 15 Issue: 3
By: Joel Wuthnow
The Jamestown Foundation
Formal military relations between China and Iran made a series of strides in 2013 and 2014. These included high-level leadership visits and unprecedented port calls involving the two countries’ navies. This article seeks to place those developments into context and offers a discussion on their significance. It suggests that China-Iran military ties remain relatively superficial; yet, because both countries pose counter-intervention challenges to U.S. forces, any strengthening of military contacts between them should be a cause for concern.
New Directions in China-Iran Military Relations
Between 1979 and 2013, military contacts between China and Iran rose and then declined. An upsurge of cooperation from the late 1980s through the 1990s included Chinese transfers of anti-ship cruise missiles (ASCMs) and fast-attack missile boats to Iran. HY-2 “Silkworm” ASCMs used by Iran to strike a U.S.-flagged oil tanker during the “Tanker Wars” of the late 1980s originated in China. The PRC also provided small boats capable of carrying ASCMs and other arms, such as ten Houdong fast-attack craft in the mid-1990s. Taken together, Georgia Tech professor John Garver argues that Beijing made a substantial contribution to Iran’s anti-littoral warfare capability during these years.  In addition to its naval cooperation, China provided technical assistance to Iran’s research and development efforts, such as help in Iran’s production of the Nasr ASCM, as well as assistance to Iran’s nuclear program. 
This level of cooperation abated in the late 1990s with the termination of Chinese assistance to Iran’s ballistic missile and nuclear programs, due in part to pressure by the United States. Some transfer of defense articles continued, such as the sale of C-14 catamaran missile boats between 2000 and 2002, but the arms relationship essentially ended by 2005.  Likewise, high-level officer visits, which had been frequent in the late 1980s and early 1990s, dropped off significantly by the early 2000s.  Scholars contend that this decline of military cooperation was due largely to Beijing’s decision to prioritize its more strategically significant relations with Washington over those with Tehran.  The passage of UN sanctions on Iran in the 2000s posed another constraint on the prospects for China-Iran military ties, at least in sensitive areas such as nuclear and missile technology.
In this context, stronger China-Iran military relations in 2013 and 2014 have begun to reverse a trend of declining cooperation. Bilateral military contacts in two areas warrant attention.
The first area concerns high-level military exchanges. For reference, there were only a few publicly reported exchanges between PRC and Iranian military officers between 1996 and 2013.  Indeed, according to data contained in China’s biannual defense white papers, the most recent such event took place in October 2003, when the commander of the Mobilization Force of the Revolutionary Guards visited Beijing.  By contrast, 2014 alone saw two such visits.
First, Iranian Defense Minister Hossein Dehqan visited China in May 2014, meeting with Central Military Commission Vice Chairman General Fan Changlong, State Councilor Yang Jiechi, and Defense Minister General Chang Wanquan. During his meeting with Chang, Dehqan stated that the purpose of his visit was to strengthen cooperation in the military and defense fields between the two countries. Likewise, Chang observed that friendly relations between the two militaries would further develop with joint efforts from both sides (Xinhua, May 5, 2014).
Second, Iranian Navy Commander Rear Admiral Habibollah Sayyari visited China in October 2014. According to the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) official newspaper, this was the first-ever visit by an Iranian Navy chief to the PRC (PLA Daily, October 23, 2014). During his visit, Sayyari met with PLA Navy (PLAN) Commander Admiral Wu Shengli, General Chang and paid visits to the North Sea Fleet, East Sea Fleet and PLAN Submarine Academy. Wu told Sayyari that China hoped to strengthen high-level visits and port calls, as well as technological cooperation and collaboration in personnel training. Sayyari remarked during his visit that Iran aimed to achieve greater cooperation with China in the areas of anti-piracy and humanitarian assistance/disaster relief (HA/DR) operations, as well as in the area of protecting sea lines of communication (PLA Daily, October 23, 2014).
A second feature of renewed military cooperation between China and Iran has been in the area of naval diplomacy and, in particular, mutual port visits between the two navies. In fact, the two such visits that took place in 2013 and 2014 represented the first time that naval vessels from each state visited the other. First, in March 2013, the Iranian destroyer Sabalan and the helicopter carrier Kharg paid a visit to Zhangjiagang port, Jiangsu Province. Iranian press stated that the purpose of the visit was to convey Iran’s “message of peace and friendship” to China and other East Asian countries (PressTV, March 4, 2013).
Second, in September 2014, two PLAN vessels conducted a five-day port visit at Bandar Abbas, a key Iranian port located along the Strait of Hormuz. The PRC ships were the destroyer Changchun and the frigate Changzhou, both of which were returning to China after conducting anti-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden (PLA Daily, September 22, 2014). The visit involved meetings between PLAN officers and the commanders of the Iranian navy’s First Coastal Defense Area and its Southern Fleet, as well as social events involving Iranian and Chinese sailors. During the visit, the PLAN rear admiral in command of the two ships remarked that mutual learning would lead to stronger cooperative relations between the two navies.  Following the visit, naval ships from both sides held joint drills focused on formation and communications (China Radio International, September 25, 2014).
Key Events in China-Iran Military Relations, 2013-2014
|Two Iranian Navy ships visit Zhangjiagang port
|Iranian Defense Minister visits China
|Two PLAN ships visit Bandar Abbas port
|Iranian Navy Commander visits China
On one level, these developments represent normal activities of the sort that occur between many armed services. China holds high-level exchanges with officers from numerous countries each year, and it has routinely carried out overseas port visits since the mid-1980s.  Moreover, since the mid-2000s, China has expanded its naval diplomacy in regions far from its borders. This has been part of the “new historic missions” articulated by then-President Hu Jintao in 2004, which require the PLA to be prepared to safeguard China’s expanding national interests, such as in the Middle East.  Likewise, Iran has developed its naval diplomacy in recent years in order to “show the flag” and demonstrate its abilities to conduct out-of-area operations. 
However, the timing of these developments raises some interesting questions. As part of its involvement in international anti-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden, the PLAN has conducted multiple port visits in the Middle East since 2008.  Why, then, did its ships not visit Iran until 2014? Similarly, the PLA has had many opportunities since 2003 to hold public, high-level meetings with its Iranian counterparts. Why did it not do so until 2014?
A likely explanation is that expansion of China-Iran military relations since 2013 has followed improvements in the overall bilateral relationship. The election of Hassan Rouhani as Iran’s president in August 2013, a burgeoning energy relationship in 2014 and recent advances by Islamic State militants may all have prompted Beijing to upgrade its emphasis on closer relations with Tehran (USNI, October 27, 2014). The tone for the bilateral relationship was set in a meeting between Chinese President Xi Jinping and Rouhani on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) summit in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan in September 2013, in which Xi stated that mutual trust had deepened and cooperation had strengthened (China Daily, September 12, 2013). During a second meeting between the two heads of state in May 2014, Xi stated that the two countries would cooperate in all fields, citing oil and gas ventures, high-level exchanges and counter-terrorism as examples (Xinhua, May 22, 2014). By contrast, meetings between Hu Jintao and Rouhani’s predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, often focused on PRC concerns over Iran’s nuclear program.  Through this lens, fostering positive military ties appears to reflect broader diplomatic priorities under Xi.
For the United States, recent developments in China-Iran military relations may not pose an immediate challenge. Currently, those relations appear relatively superficial, even if they do seem to be growing. Further cooperation in non-traditional security areas, such as anti-piracy and counter-terrorism, may even bring positive benefits to regional security.
The key issue is whether military cooperation between Beijing and Tehran expands in a way that jeopardizes U.S. interests. The U.S. Department of Defense’s 2012 Defense Strategic Guidance singled out both China and Iran as posing an anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) challenge to U.S. forces.  To date, there has been only anecdotal evidence that the two countries are cooperating in sensitive areas that may exacerbate the A2/AD challenge. For instance, a PRC firm may have attempted to illicitly transfer man-portable air defense technology to Iran in March 2013.  However, the recent uptick in formal military ties could presage more robust cooperation in fields such as technical assistance, personnel training or sharing of views in counter-intervention doctrine. The likelihood of such an outcome is uncertain and may be contingent on a variety of factors, such as the continuation of UN sanctions. Nevertheless, any evidence of enhanced cooperation between the U.S. military’s two most prominent A2/AD challengers should raise concerns.
Issues to Watch
Given the potential stakes of evolving China-Iran military relations, it would be advisable to further explore the strategic and political dynamics that may be giving rise to those developments. Specific areas of inquiry should include:
Strategic views toward the United States. First, strategic perspectives in Beijing and Tehran toward the United States could provide insight into the prospects for deepening military relations between the two sides. It is especially important to consider how officials and strategic thinkers from both sides perceive the dangers posed by the U.S. presence in their respective regions, and the extent to which bilateral military cooperation is seen as a viable way to mitigate those risks. Evidence that any of those views are shifting in light of the U.S. rebalance to Asia, or U.S. military operations in the Middle East, could have particularly salient implications for progress in their military relationship.
Evolving China-Iran political relations. Second, China-Iran military relations may be following the broader achievements in the overall bilateral relationship. If this is the case, it would be useful to understand the general direction in which those relations seem to be moving, as well as the perspectives in Beijing and Tehran regarding the opportunities and constraints on cooperation with the other. Evidence of optimism on either side that there may be room to significantly upgrade relations, especially with the advent of new leadership on both sides, could signify more opportunities for enhanced military relations between the two countries.
Regional strategic goals. Third, it is important to understand how military interactions between China and Iran facilitate the two country’s strategic goals in the Middle East. China’s broader approach to the Middle East could shape the nature or extent of its military contacts with Iran, while Iran’s goals in its own neighborhood may impact the nature of its interactions with the PLA. The two countries’ perspectives on the challenge posed by Islamic State, as well as regional piracy and trafficking issues, would be helpful in ascertaining the possible direction of cooperation.
China-Iran military cooperation made a number of advances in 2013 and 2014, though the level of that cooperation continues to pale in comparison to that of the late 1980s and 1990s. There is nothing inherently disconcerting about leadership visits and port calls, but given that the PRC and IRI have been singled out as posing counter-intervention challenges for U.S. forces, any level of military contact between the two countries should be a reason for continued attention. Therefore, it is of the essence to scrutinize their military relationship, and to gain insight into the strategic and political dynamics leading to closer cooperation between the two countries.
- John Garver, China and Iran: Ancient Partners in a Post-Imperial World (Seattle, WA: University of Washington Press, 2006), pp. 166–200.
- Scott Harold and Alireza Nader, “China and Iran: Economic, Political, and Military Relations,” RAND Occasional Paper, 2012, p. 6.
- For instance, the SIPRI Arms Transfer Database contains no record of PRC arms sales to Iran after 2005. See data at: http://www.sipri.org/databases/armstransfers.
- According to John Garver, there were 14 high-level exchanges between China and Iran between 1989 and 2006, but only 2 between 1997 and 2003 (John Garver, China and Iran, p. 172).
- John Garver, China and Iran, p. 196; Scott Harold and Alireza Nader, “China and Iran,” p. 6.
- Garver counts only four high-level military exchanges between China and Iran from 1996 to 2003 (John Garver, China and Iran, p. 172).
- China’s National Defense in 2004, PRC State Council Information Office, December 2004, Appendix III.
- China’s National Defense in 2004, Appendix III.
- For more information, see: Christoper D. Yung and Ross Rustici, “China’s Out of Area Naval Operations: Case Studies, Trajectories, Obstacles, and Potential Solutions,” China Strategic Perspectives 3 (Washington, D.C.: Institute for National Strategic Studies, National Defense University, 2010), pp. 12–13.
- For a discussion, see: Daniel M. Hartnett, “The PLA’s Domestic and Foreign Activities and Orientation,” Testimony before the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, 4 March 2009, http://www.uscc.gov/sites/default/files/3.4.09Hartnett.pdf and Cortez A. Cooper, “The PLA Navy’s ‘New Historic Missions:’ Expanding Capabilities for a Re-emergent Maritime Power,” Testimony before the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, 11 June 2009.
- Michael Eisenstadt and Alon Paz, “Iran’s Evolving Maritime Presence,” Washington Institute for Near East Policy, 13 March 2014, http://www.washingtoninstitute.org/policy-analysis/view/irans-evolving-maritime-presence.
- See: Andrew S. Erickson and Austin M. Strange, “No Substitute for Experience: Chinese Antipiracy Operations in the Gulf of Aden,” U.S. Naval War College, China Maritime Studies, No. 1, 2013, table preceding p. 1.
- For instance, during a June 2012 meeting, Hu reportedly admonished Ahmadinejad to “weigh the situation” and take a “flexible and pragmatic approach” toward the nuclear negotiations (Associated Press, June 8, 2012).
- Sustaining U.S. Global Leadership: Priorities for 21st Century Defense (Washington, DC: Department of Defense, January 2012), p. 4.
- In March 2013, an Iranian vessel near Yemen was found to be transporting PRC-made QW-1M man-portable air defense systems. James Brandon Gentry, “China’s Role in Iran’s Anti-Access/Area Denial Weapons Capability Development,” Middle East Institute paper, 16 April 2013, http://www.mei.edu/content/china’s-role-iran’s-anti-access-area-denial-weapons-capability-development.
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Photo: Chinese President Xi Jinping meets Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. (Credit: Xinhua)