On January 3rd, General Qasem Soleimani, the commander of Iran’s Quds force, was killed in a U.S airstrike in Baghdad. Soleimani was the architect of Iran’s proxy wars in the Middle East and played a critical role in defeating the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. The killing of Qasim Soleimani brought the U.S and Iran to the brink of war. It also triggered a sense of insecurity and instability in the Middle East and South Asian region. Among other countries, the assassination of Soleimani can also hurt the interests of China in the South Asian region.
The two countries where China may take a blow to its geopolitical and economic interests are Pakistan and Afghanistan, both of which are situated between Iran and China. Pakistan shares a 959km long porous border with Iran and hence faces a huge risk of destabilization due to the internal dynamics of Soleimani’s assassination.
There are four ways in which the killing of Iranian general Soleimani can hurt Chinese interests in the region. Firstly, this development can halt and disrupt the progress of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in Pakistan. China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) is a $50 billion dollar flagship project of the BRI, and it is extremely critical for the success of the larger BRI project. Pakistan’s Gwadar port, located 75km away from the Iranian border, is the center stage of Chinese investment in Pakistan. In case of a resulting conflict between the U.S. and Iran, Gwadar would be an automatic casualty. It can’t simply continue operating when there is an armed conflict just 75km away in Iran. Without Gwadar, the CPEC project in Pakistan will effectively cease to exist.
Moreover, Pakistan also has internal conflict, which makes it weak when there is a conflict in Iran: almost 20 percent of Pakistan’s population comprises of Shiite Muslims – who have religious sympathy for Iran – making it the second-largest Shiite population in the world after Iran. Therefore, if Iran ever faced an armed threat from the U.S., these Shiites would support their country’s neighbor in its capacity. If Pakistan took the side of the U.S. or even chose to remain neutral, then it would face the wrath of this segment of the population. In such a situation, Pakistan would be facing severe civil disobedience, and that would jam the economic activity in the country. Consequently, the $50 billion investments of China would also be effectively wasted because CPEC cannot remain operational in this scenario.
Secondly, this development would hurt the geo-strategic interests of China in Afghanistan. Since 2001, Afghanistan has been in a state of war. It continues to be a breeding ground for global and regional terror outfits. China shares a narrow border with Afghanistan in its southwest Xinjiang province. Interestingly, Xinjiang is the province where China was facing terrorism from the East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM), which has its connections to Afghanistan. Therefore, China wants peace in Afghanistan so that groups like ETIM would be deprived of their safe havens, which they need to launch attacks in Xinjiang. For this reason, China has been making active efforts to broker a peace deal in Afghanistan. In fact, in October last year, China hosted Taliban negotiators in Beijing to convince them for a peace deal with Kabul. In that context, the death of Soleimani disrupted the Afghan peace process.
In Afghanistan, there is still a reasonable presence of U.S. troops. This makes it a territory where Iran can settle its score with the U.S. and avenge the killing of Soleimani. Iran has its own connections with the Taliban, which it can use to intensify attacks on U.S. troops in Afghanistan and effectively kill any potential peace deal with Kabul. In fact, on January 27th, a U.S. air force plane Bombardier E-11A crashed in Eastern Afghanistan. The U.S. government deemed it as an accident, whereas Iranian and Russian news outlets claimed that the mastermind of the assassination of Soleimani was killed in the attack, implying that Iran had used its influence over the Taliban to shoot down a U.S. military plane in Afghanistan. In any case, this represents an escalation in conflict in Afghanistan, which hurts China’s interests vis-à-vis Afghanistan, where peace is a pre-requisite.
Thirdly, the unfolding scenario in the aftermath of Soleimani’s death can also hurt the economic interests of China linked with Afghanistan. As mentioned earlier, Gwadar Port is a key project in China’s BRI project in Pakistan. China has invested $250 million in the construction of the Gwadar Port. It is also spending over $1 billion in developing the connecting infrastructure for Gwadar. The port just recently started to pay back China, which has a 91 percent stake in the project. In January, Gwadar port started serving Afghan Transit trade, which allows Afghanistan to trade goods via Pakistan because it’s a landlocked country. The continued usage of Gwadar Port for Afghan transit trade means increasing economic return for China in the form of port handling fees.
However, the situation in Afghanistan due to Soleimani’s assassination cannot remain conducive to the Afghan transit trade. As a result, the demand for trade coming from Afghanistan may die down, and it will be a huge financial loss for the Chinese-controlled Gwadar Port. In case of prolonged conflict in the region due to tension with Iran, China might have to forego return on its investments in Gwadar Port for many years to come.
Lastly, the post-Soleimani conflict scenario can push China closer to Iran risking further deterioration of its relations with the U.S. government. Last year, China was contemplating including Iran in the BRI; in September last year, China even announced to invest $400 billion in Iran. China is also among the few countries that buy oil from Iran despite U.S. sanctions. This means that China has interests in doing business with Iran, and it won’t sever them due to U.S. pressure. Now that the hostility between Iran and the U.S. has increased, however, China is risking further angering the U.S. by doing business with Iran. At the same time, it will also be difficult for China to include Iran in the BRI now. Any investment that Beijing makes now in Iran will continue to face the threat of disruption due to the ongoing conflict-prone scenarios in Iran in the aftermath of Soleimani’s death.
Based on the aforementioned analysis, it’s clear that the death of Soleimani severely hurt the interests of China in the region. China, given its militarily defensive posture, will not help Iran militarily in conflict with the U.S. However, it will do its best to avoid such a conflict in the first place. In any case, this will be tantamount to another front on which China will be engaged to safeguard its interests in the foreseeable future. China is expanding as a global economic empire, and how it tackles the post-Soleimani scenario in Iran and South Asia will speak volumes about China’s approach to conflict in years to come.