Sign Up

China and Iran: A New Route

What has shaped the Sino-Iranian relationship, and what are the two country’s shared national objectives?

February 12, 2007

What has shaped the Sino-Iranian relationship, and what are the two country's shared national objectives?

Iran, along with Pakistan, plays an increasingly important role in providing western China access to the oceanic highway of the global economy. Economic and strategic factors converge here.

The striking success of China’s post-1978 development drive was predicated on integrating eastern China into the global economy — and that, in turn, was predicated on the many fine ports on China’s east coast. Those ports offered access to the oceanic highways that carried China-manufactured goods to distant markets.

Western China, locked deep in the interior of Eurasia, suffered a distinct disadvantage in this regard. Western, interior provinces, with strong support from Beijing, attempted to mitigate this disadvantage by opening transport links with their neighbors.

Yunnan province in China’s southwest achieved considerable success in opening or improving road, riverine and rail links with and through Myanmar to ports — including several that were China-built — on the Bay of Bengal.

Myanmar’s location in the southeastern foothills of the Tibetan plateau had for many centuries made it a natural transit route between southwestern China and the Bay of Bengal. Xinjiang was not so fortunate. Its traditional international trade routes were the long and tenuous lines of the various “silk roads” across Central Asia.

Beijing attempted to strengthen Xinjiang’s transport links with Central Asia. In 1990, the Soviet Central Asia railway grid was finally linked to that of Xinjiang when a line was opened between Urumqi and Aqtoghay, Kazakhstan.

Then in the late 1990s, a rail line was pushed south along the western rim of the Tarim Basin, reaching Kashgar by 1999. As of 2005, construction of two trans-Kyrgyzstan highways running westward from Kashgar is under way, with the intention of eventually transforming one of those routes into a rail line.

The China-supported construction of the rail line from Mashhad to Tedzhen, Turkmenistan, opened in 1996, was also part of this effort to link Xinjiangto Iranian ports.

China’s adoption in 2000 of a program to accelerate development of its western regions made development of transportation lines to the southwest even more important. Pakistan was China’s major partner in this regard.

In August 2001, Premier Zhu Rongji committed China to provide $198 million to support the first phase of construction of a new seaport at Gwadar in Pakistan’s Baluchistan. Zhu also promised unspecified support for two subsequent phases of the project.

When complete, the new Gwadar port was to have a cargo throughput capacity equivalent to that of Karachi, thereby nearly doubling Pakistan’s maritime capacity and allowing cargoes to circumvent Karachi’s extremely crowded facilities. Also in 2001, China committed $250 million to assist Pakistan in modernizing its railway system.

In March 2003, Beijing committed an additional $500 million to Pakistan’s railway modernization, including construction of new tracks. China also agreed to provide financial support for construction of a new rail line northward from Gwadar and linking up at Dalbandin with the existing east-west rail line.

China also agreed to finance construction of a highway east from Gwadar along the Makran coast. Simultaneously, measures were taken to expedite the flow of truck traffic along the Karakoram Highway running from Kashgar to Rawal pindi in northern Pakistan.

While China’s major transportation investments in southwest Asia have been in Pakistan, Iran has played a role via several railway projects that dove-tailed with China’s efforts in Pakistan. The first of these Iranian projects was construction of a rail line between Kerman in southeast Iran and Zahedan on the Iran-Pakistan border. Work on this line was under way in 2002.

When complete, this rail line will link the Iranian and Pakistani rail systems for the first time. Work was also under way on a new rail line extending southwest from Mashhad directly across northeastern Iran to Bafq. This line was to be operational by early 2005.

The completion of these new lines will mean that Chinese cargo moving via the Tedzhen-Mashhad link can proceed directly to seaports without having to take the long, circuitous and crowded but previously required detour through Tehran.

Once these new lines are open, Chinese cargo will also be able to move between Pakistan and Iran and through ports in either of those two countries. These new lines will add considerable redundancy to China’s southwest Asia transportation system.

While the major significance of these new, Chinese southwesterly lines of international transportation is commercial, they also have a strategic role.

In the event of a U.S.-PRC military confrontation that became protracted and in which the United States used its naval supremacy to blockade China’s coast, China’s ability to continue prosecution of the war would be influenced by its ability to import vital materials overland.

In such a situation, it would be extremely useful to have robust and redundant transport links through Pakistan and Iran and to have long-standing, cooperative ties "tested by adversity" with both of those countries.

Editor’s note: Adapted from CHINA AND IRAN © 2006 by John W. Garver. Reprinted with permission by University of Washington Press.