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Iran-Pakistan Tensions Test Beijing's Diplomatic Prowess

  • Iran and Pakistan's recent military exchanges and diplomatic strain have raised concerns about regional stability and the impact on China's investments in both countries.
  • China, a key partner of Iran and Pakistan, is expected to use its influence to de-escalate tensions and maintain its strategic interests in the region.
  • The situation highlights the complexity of regional dynamics and China's role in navigating conflicts while advancing its geopolitical and economic goals.

Air strikes and diplomatic sparring between Iran and Pakistan have raised difficult questions for China and its influence in the region amid growing fears the upheaval sweeping across the Middle East could spread.

Since the tit-for-tat strikes on January 16 and 18 against militant and separatist groups, Islamabad and Tehran have signaled they want to de-escalate the situation and that their foreign ministers will hold talks in Pakistan on January 29.

But the attacks have exposed the fine line between peace and conflict in the region and put the spotlight on China, a close partner of both countries, to see if it can use its sway to ramp down tensions and avoid a conflict that would jeopardize Beijing's economic and geopolitical interests in the region.

"For China, the stakes are high and they really can't afford for things to get any worse between Iran and Pakistan," Abdul Basit, an associate research fellow at Singapore's S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, told RFE/RL.

China has tens of billions of dollars of investments in Iran and Pakistan and both countries are high-level partners that benefit from Chinese political and economic support.

Following the missile-strike exchange, China's Foreign Ministry called for calm and said it would "play a constructive role in cooling down the situation," without giving details.

Beijing is now expected to step up its engagement to head off another crisis in the region, in what analysts say is yet another test for China's influence after recently hitting its limit with the war in Gaza, shipping attacks in the Red Sea by Iranian-backed Huthi militants, and the growing instability across the Middle East these events have caused.

"We're yet to see anything really concrete where China has stepped in to solve an international crisis," Sari Arho Havren, an associate fellow at London's Royal United Services Institute, told RFE/RL. "[But] China has a reputational image at stake where it's presenting itself as the alternative to the United States, even though assumptions about how powerful it really is in the Middle East are now being scrutinized."

What's Going On Between Iran And Pakistan?

The Iranian strikes in Pakistan were part of a series of similar attacks launched by Iran that also hit targets in Iraq and Syria.

In Pakistan, Tehran said it was targeting the Sunni separatist group Jaish al-Adl with drones and missiles in Pakistan's southwestern Balochistan Province. Jaish al-Adl operates mostly in Iran's southeastern Sistan-Baluchistan Province but is also suspected to be in neighboring Pakistan. The group claimed responsibility for a December 15 attack on a police station in southeastern Iran that killed 11 officers.

In response, Islamabad said its military conducted air strikes in Sistan-Baluchistan targeting the Baloch Liberation Front and the Baloch Liberation Army, two separatist groups believed to be hiding in Iran.

The exchange of strikes was followed by Pakistan recalling its ambassador from Iran and blocking Tehran's ambassador to Islamabad from returning to his post.

On January 21, the Counterterrorism Department in Pakistan's southwestern Sindh Province announced it had arrested a suspect in a 2019 assassination attempt on a top Pakistani cleric who is a member of the Zainebiyoun Brigade, a militant group allegedly backed by Iran.

But since the strikes on each other's territory, Iran and Pakistan have cooled their rhetoric and signaled that they intend to de-escalate, echoing sentiment through official statements that the neighbors are "brotherly countries" that should pursue dialogue and cooperation.

Basit says this stems largely from the fact that the countries see themselves spread too thin in dealing with a host of pressing foreign and domestic issues.

Tehran has grappled with a series of attacks across the country, including a January 3 twin bombing that killed more than 90 people, and is engaged across the region directly or through groups that it backed such as Yemen's Huthis and Lebanon's Hizballah.

The tit-for-tat attacks, meanwhile, come as Pakistan is embroiled in an economic crisis and prepares to hold high-stakes elections on February 8, the first since former Prime Minister Imran Khan was removed in a vote of no confidence in April 2021, setting off years of escalating political turmoil.

"Between the economy, elections, and always-present tensions with India that could grow, Pakistan simply can't afford another front," Basit said.

Islamabad and Tehran are now pushing to cool down the situation, though Basit adds that the situation remains tense. "There is peace and calm now, but the animosity is ongoing," he said.

How Much Leverage Does China Have?

Following a week of tensions, China has leverage to push for a diplomatic settlement to the dispute, although experts say Beijing may be reluctant to intervene too publicly.

"China looks to be quite measured here in its response and that raises some questions about where China stands in using its influence," Basit said. "China knows it can influence the situation, but Beijing also usually shies away from situations like this because they worry that if they try and fail, then the West will look at it differently."

Beijing raised expectations in March 2023 it would play a larger political role in the Middle East when it brokered a historic deal between regional rivals Iran and Saudi Arabia.

Michael Kugelman, the director of the Wilson Center's South Asia Institute, says China's willingness to be a mediator shouldn't be underplayed. "It looks like the Pakistanis and the Iranians had enough in their relationship to ease tensions themselves," he told RFE/RL. "But China was willing to do the Iran-Saudi deal, which is a more fraught relationship to get involved in. So, they might be relieved now, but that doesn't mean they won't step up if needed."

China also holds other cards if it needs to calm the situation between Iran and Pakistan.

As China's "iron brother," Islamabad has a close partnership with Beijing, with cooperation ranging from economic investment to defense. Pakistan is the largest buyer of Chinese weapons and is also home to the multibillion-dollar China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), a flagship series of infrastructure projects within China's Belt and Road Initiative.

CPEC is part of Beijing's efforts to connect itself to the Arabian Sea and build stronger trade networks with the Middle East.

A centerpiece of the venture is developing the port of Gwadar in Balochistan, which would strengthen shipping lanes to the region, particularly for energy shipments from Iran.

For Tehran, China is a top buyer of sanctioned Iranian oil, and Beijing signed a sprawling 25-year economic and security agreement with Iran in 2021.

Arho Havren says that given both Iran and Pakistan's economic dependence on China, Beijing will do all it can, should tensions rise, but will likely do so behind the scenes. "China [is unlikely] to take a stronger public stake in the conflict, but will instead use its back-channels," Arho Havren said.

What Comes Next?

While the situation between Iran and Pakistan is moving towards de-escalation, the recent tensions highlight the often tenuous footing of regional rivalries that China's ambitions to lead the Global South rest upon.

Both Pakistan and Iran are members of the Beijing-led Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), which also includes India, Russia, and Central Asia (minus Turkmenistan). The SCO has been an important part of Beijing's bid for leadership across parts of Asia and the Middle East while looking to bring together countries to work together on economic and security issues.

China has invested in growing the bloc and is in discussion to add more countries, such as Saudi Arabia and Belarus, but further conflict between its members could derail those moves and damage the SCO's credibility.

Arho Havren says Beijing will still have to grapple with the lack of trust between Islamabad and Tehran and is facing similar issues elsewhere in the Middle East as it walks a tightrope between simultaneously raising its international influence and limiting any diplomatic exposure that could hurt its reputation.

"Cooperation may be easy, but the relations between the countries in the region are complex, and China's journey [in the Middle East] is still in its beginning," she said.

By RFE/RL

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