BEIJING: Beijing has said it is willing to mediate tensions between Pakistan and Iran, after the two countries traded deadly air strikes this week on targets on each other’s territory.

Since China is a close partner of both nations, here’s how Beijing could be uniquely positioned to mediate the tensions:

Close economic ties

Straddling Central Asia and a vast territory from the Himalayas to the Gulf, Pakistan and Iran are well-positioned in Beijing’s long-term plans to reshape regional geopolitics in its interests.

Beijing’s foreign ministry spokeswoman Mao Ning said on Thursday that China was “willing to play a constructive role in de-escalating the situation” if both sides wished.

“China commands influence and leverage in both capitals, and both countries expect a rising China to dominate Asia for decades to come,” Sameer P. Lalwani, a senior expert on South Asia at the US Institute of Peace (USIP), said.

“Beijing possesses some credibility to press the leaderships of both countries for cooler heads to prevail.” Pakistan plays an important role in China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), earmarking tens of billions of dollars for a range of transport and energy projects connecting western China with Gwadar Port — described as an “economic corridor”.

Iran and China have also deepened trade ties in recent years, though Beijing’s efforts to pull Tehran into the BRI have been complicated by sanctions and many of the details of a 25-year cooperation agreement signed in 2021 remain murky.

China is Iran’s largest trade partner and a top buyer of the its oil. Chinese imports

of Iran’s petroleum soared to a 10-year high last year.

“In some ways, Iran and Pakistan may be competitors vying for China’s economic and strategic investments,” Lalwani said.

Military nexus

This week’s cross-border clashes came as a surprise: while Pakistan and Iran often accuse each other of allowing militants to operate from the other’s territory, cross-border operations by government forces are not common.

Both heavily armed militaries enjoy close ties with Beijing.

China has long played a critical role in arming Iran, aiding its efforts to modernise its military hardware and tactics as well as “transfer of technology and machinery” for its nuclear programme.

Military cooperation is also a central pillar of the China-Pakistan friendship.

Beijing is Islamabad’s top provider of conventional weapons — and its dominant supplier of “higher-end offensive strike capabilities”, according to a paper by USIP’s Lalwani.

“Military ties between Beijing and Islamabad have become increasingly close and substantial,” said Bjorn Alexander Duben, an assistant professor at China’s Jilin University.

That, he said, might give Beijing leverage to “urge restraint” when tensions flare.

Middle man

Beijing’s case to oversee an effort to cool Islamabad-Tehran tensions could also be bolstered by recent efforts to play diplomatic mediator, albeit with mixed results.

Last year saw it broker a surprise thaw of ties between Iran and Saudi Arabia. But other moves have been less successful: Beijing’s efforts to push for a “political

settlement” to the Ukraine conflict floundered last year after Western countries said it could enable Russia to hold much of the territory it has seized.

Published in Dawn, January 20th, 2024

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