This report first appeared as a part of Hudson's China in the Middle East newsletter series. To subscribe, click here.
Iran-China Comprehensive Cooperation Program Summit
The day after Iran publicly hanged a second protester convicted of “waging war against God,” a 70-member delegation headed by Chinese Vice Premier Hu Chunhua arrived in Tehran to attend the December 13 Iran-China comprehensive cooperation program summit. In pursuit of the 25-year strategic agreement signed in March 2021, Iran and China finalized 16 memoranda of understanding in various fields, including energy, oil, gas, banking, transit, infrastructure, ports, and joint investment. Banking officials present at the summit also vowed to eliminate as soon as possible the existing trade barriers affecting Iranians living in China and Chinese living in Iran. The MoUs are reportedly preludes to agreements that are going to be reached in an upcoming meeting between Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi and Chinese President Xi Jinping in Tehran.
These agreements show China’s determination to deepen Tehran’s economic dependence. While locking Iran into its sphere of influence, Xi Jinping is also shoring up the regime, which shares China’s objective of eroding the US-led order in the Middle East.
China is still receiving tongue lashings from the Iranians for the joint declaration with Saudi Arabia signed last week in Riyadh. During a meeting with Hu Chunhua, President Raisi demanded “compensation” for the declaration, which suggested that Iran’s nuclear program might be other than peaceful, and which supported the United Arab Emirate’s efforts to resolve its dispute with Iran over Abu Musa and the Greater and Lesser Tunbs, islands that are occupied by Tehran but claimed by the UAE.
The Iranian ambassador to China, Mohammad Keshavarzzadeh, wrote in a December 19 tweet that he presented a memorandum of protest to high officials of China. Meanwhile, the Arman Daily, an Iranian newspaper, ran a front-page story, “Taiwan Independence: A Legal Right,” which argued that Beijing must accept Taiwan’s claims of independence. The article was a clear signal to Beijing that failure to support Iran’s position over the disputed islands would lead to a shift in the Iranian policy over Taiwan.
During his December 12 regular press conference, Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesman Wang Wenbin reiterated that China and Iran enjoy a “traditional friendship” and that China’s relations with the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries do not target any third party. Furthermore, in meetings with Iranian officials in Tehran, Hu Chunhua clarified that “China supports the national sovereignty, territorial integrity, and national honor of Iran and the fight against foreign interference.”
This handling of the increased tension with Tehran following the summits in Riyadh comports with Beijing’s continued strategy of striking a balance between Iran and its regional antagonists. While helping to shore up Iran, Xi Jinping has worked to maintain partnerships with the GCC countries. The long-term goal of this policy is to supplant the United States in the Middle East. The short-term goal, which Beijing is quickly realizing, is to tarnish the status of America as the decisive strategic actor in the region.
China’s JCPOA Endorsement
At his regular press conference on December 14, Spokesman Wang Wenbin said that while negotiations face profound complexities, there is still hope to reach an agreement on returning to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), as the Iran nuclear deal is formally known. Iran, he explained, has “recently shown goodwill and flexibility on some outstanding issues of the negotiations,” and the United States “needs to respond to that positively.”
Can we infer from this statement that the Iranian nuclear negotiations are still moving along behind the scenes? Are the Western powers still willing to abide by a deal that will transfer many tens of billions of dollars to the regime in Tehran even as it supplies kamikaze drones to Russia for use in the Ukraine war? We will watch this space with interest.
United Nations Commission on the Status of Women (CSW)
On December 14, in its last session of the year, 29 out of 54 members of the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) voted in favor of a US-drafted resolution to “remove with immediate effect the Islamic Republic of Iran from membership in the Commission on the Status of Women for the remainder of its 2022-2026 term.” China was one of eight nations to vote against the resolution. China’s deputy UN ambassador, Geng Shuang, argued that “addressing human rights and women’s issues by means of removing Iran from CSW would only set a dangerous precedent, send out the wrong message, and bring out negative consequences.”
Tiandy’s Facial Recognition Technology
On December 15, the United States Commerce Department added 36 Chinese companies to its export blacklist, a classification that prevents Americans from selling any components to these entities. Among these companies is Tiandy Technologies, a Chinese video surveillance equipment producer that has previously sold technology to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.
This is the first US government restriction against Tiandy, which has gained increased attention due to a report by the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a letter from Senator Marco Rubio to Secretary of State Antony Blinken. In addition, in pursuit of a July 5 order by President Raisi to enforce Iran’s mandatory hijab law, facial recognition technology—presumably provided by China—has been used to help identify and fine women who break the law.
New Fiberglass Production Line in Egypt
China Jushi Co., a fiberglass enterprise of China National Building Material Co., held an inauguration ceremony on December 15 to celebrate the new production line at its Egyptian factory in the Suez province. Representatives from the Suez Canal Economic Zone (SCZone) and the Chinese embassy in Cairo attended the celebration of the new line, which will increase Jushi Egypt’s total production capacity to 340,000 metric tons per year. SCZone Chairman Waleid Gamaleldein encouraged additional Chinese investment in the zone “to utilize its advantages, strategic location, [and] ability to export to other neighboring countries.”
Haifa Bayport’s Anniversary
Officials gathered on December 15 to celebrate the first anniversary of the Haifa Bayport’s inauguration and the thirtieth year of Israel-China diplomatic ties with an illumination ceremony. During his opening remarks, Consul General of Israel in Shanghai Edward Shapira complimented the port—developed and operated by the Shanghai International Port Group (SIPG)—as it positions Israeli ports “on the top advanced rank in the Eastern Mediterranean basin.”
Iraq-based fintech company Ishtar Gate Company for E-Payment Systems and Services—also known as Blue—launched Bluepay, a mobile app that enables users to trade US-listed stocks. Recently approved by the Central Bank of Iraq as the first service for international money transfers, Bluepay can issue its users a UnionPay Card, which opens the door to China and allows for additional business and financial transactions between the two countries.
Tunisia’s Trade Deficit
Considered one of China's most unbalanced trade relationships, Tunisia’s trade deficit with China reached 7.9 billion dinars at the end of November. Xi Jinping said he fully supports Tunisia in pursuing a development path suited to its national conditions. He expressed China’s willingness to increase bilateral cooperation and encourage Chinese investment in the North African country in favor of a win-win partnership.
Xi did not miss the opportunity to reiterate China’s opposition to external interference in internal affairs, indicating that China’s financial dealings with Tunisia are no one’s business but its own. Beijing's approach to Tunisia's economic crisis is consistent with its debt-trap diplomacy tactics. By ensuring Tunisia's reliance on Beijing, Xi expands his political influence in the region.
Chinese Language in the Kingdom
Saudi Arabia and China recently signed an agreement detailing the Saudi ministry’s plan to begin teaching Mandarin and Chinese literature as part of their educational curriculum. Following this idea of integration, first introduced by de-facto leader Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in 2019, Saudi teachers will learn Mandarin and be exposed to Chinese culture.