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Iranian navy troops march in a parade marking National Army Day outside Tehran, Iran, April 18, 2015 (AP photo by Ebrahim Noroozi).

China’s Naval Diplomacy Balances Iran With Saudi Arabia

Tuesday, Dec. 8, 2015

In the years leading up to the Iran nuclear deal, Iran and China found their interests at times aligning and at others diverging. Since the late 1990s, China had reduced its defense ties with Iran under U.S. pressure. At the same time, espousing a discourse of peace and cooperation, Beijing did not want the West to go to war with Iran. Moreover, Tehran’s perseverance in the face of Western efforts to isolate Iran was a counterbalancing force against U.S. hegemony in the Middle East, which suited China’s strategic interests.

However, the conflict with Iran over its nuclear program also indirectly threatened China, because a war risked disrupting Middle Eastern energy supplies upon which China is increasingly dependent. Of course, China could always rely on Saudi Arabia to compensate for sanctions on Iranian oil. But China could not overcome the risk of a blockade to the vital Strait of Hormuz, something Iran’s political, military and naval leaders often held out as a threat amid the nuclear impasse. Some 30 percent of all seaborne-traded oil flows through the strait. Unlike the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet, which is responsible for operations in the Persian Gulf, China’s People Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) does not have sufficient capabilities to conduct long-range operations on its own to keep such vital sea-lanes open. ...

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