Review: China and Iran–Ancient Partners in a Post-Imperial World

5 Star, Country/Regional, Diplomacy
China Iran
Amazon Page

Foundation Stone for Serious Global Understanding,

May 30, 2009

John W. Garver

This is a sensational book, dry as only a serious academic can be, but so absolutely original and fundamental as to make me smile and cheer. This is what a book should be–original, properly sourced, wonderful appendix that is a chronology of Chinese and Iranian substantive state-level contacts, and so on.

Although the author cannot cover it all, the length of the book and the totality of this work move the book from four stars to five. This is a VERY important book for anyone who wants to move beyond the failed analytic frameworks and corrupt policy frameworks of the past and into reality in the 21st Century.

The bottom line up front: when it gets down to “either or” China will favor its desire for US comity over its respect for Iranian anti-hegemonism, but over time, China has executed a very skillful balancing act that has helped Iran restore its role as the central power in the Persian-Middle East region.

For me the huge eye-opener–I actually have goosebumps and am posting a variation of the map on page 292 of this book to share my appreciation–was the role that Pakistan and Iran play in giving China access to the sea and Middle Eastern energy as well as African natural resources.

Although India is not discussed in this book, I learn that the author has written Protracted Contest: Sino-Indian Rivalry in the Twentieth Century and that will be in my stack for my next long trip. This book is vitally important and as I reflect on all the books that I have absorbed over the years, this one stands out as “the way it should be done.” This is a perfect book at the strategic level. It could be complemented by others writing companion books, for example, I would love to see a book studying both Chinese and Iranian inroads into Africa and Latin America, illuminating both the processes and the cross-overs. The kind of thing CIA should be doing but does not, for at least four reasons: children as analysts; security obstacles to outreach; lack of a holistic analytic model; and lack of access to open sources that are not online, in English, and easily processed.

There are chapters on Iran and China in relation to Xinjiang Muslims; Chinese support to the Iranian nuclear program both directly and via Pakistan (siginficantly, China stood down on support related to weaponizing nuclear and also stopped Iranian use of Silkworm missiles from China against shipping). The three page chronology on this aspect is fine detail. The chapter on Chinese-Iranian military exchanges draws heavily on the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute and I am reminded of that organization's priceless contributions. The last three chapters cover US-Taiwan in relation to China-Iran; economy, and energy.

The 1000 word limit is a good one for reviewers, so I will be concise in the sharing of my other flyleaf notes:

1. PRIMAL FACTORS. The Chinese-Iranian relationship can be traced back and has been active since centuries before Christ. At the same time, China and Iran represent the apex of regional powers who have not been co-opted or corrupted by Western colonial hegemony backed by unilateral militarism. I can only anticipate they will be the “last man standing” on their home ground.

2. Iranian Constancy. Both Shah and Post-Shah have played US and Russians consistently, and both have been concerned about US and Russian incursions into the Indian Ocean.

3. Pakistan. Both China and Iran have convergent interests in Pakistan, and Pakistan is a key player on many fronts–a book by this author on Pakistan in relation to China, Iran India, Central Asia would be phenomenal.

4. China Core Concept. The strategic core concept that China pursues is “Unified Front.” The author elaborates. I note the contrast with US core concept of “American exceptionalism” and unilateralism (Obama is Empire as usual, I have sponsored a new meme, “Free Obama.” Between the two corrupt parties working for Wall Street, and the persistent special interests and Versailles bureaucracy, nothing has changed). At the operational level, the author discusses Chinese “Realistic Prudence.”

5. China-Iran Geopolitical. The map with embedded text on page 46 is so very good I am uploading that at well. This book is well illustrated, well-documented–a pure pleasure.

6. Civilizational Rhetoric. The author opens with this, and I love it. The author makes it clear that this matters [for decades I have called for historical intelligence, i.e. show me every Chinese, Vietnamese, Philippine, and Malaysian statement on the Spratley Islands going back 200 years, but to no avail–CIA does not do history or culture in any meaningful sense of the word, partly because they cannot read in the original languages and do not access ofline original books.]

7. Concerns About Iran. The author enumerates Chinese concerns about Iran, one wonders if any US policy bubbas have pursued this aspect of US-Chinese relations. See page 28.

8. End of the Shah. The author documents how China missed the rise of the Khomeini regime as did the USA. The clerics did not know China had 20 million Muslims, and this ultimately helped the dialog.

9. Stage Two. The author provides a lovely review of how China ramped up its relations with Iran in the aftermath of negative global opinion over its repression of demonstrations, the collapse of the USSR, and the unilateral aggressiveness of the USA in the Middle East.

10. Iranian Roadmap. The author outlines how Iran's strategic plan began with Lebanon, then moved over to Afghanistan, and next plans to focus on Central Asia and Xinjiang in China, the latter in the face of Chinese resistance. Pakistan needs its own book.

11. Gulf I and Gulf II. The public record available to the author suggests that both Iran and China opposed both US invasions (Gulf I and Gulf II) because they put a US armed presence or footprint in the area. My personal view is that Iran played the US for a sucker with Chalabi as an agent of influence, and got the US to knock of Hussein and displace the Taliban.

I have to stop here. This is a wonderful book, a deep serious contribution, a real original, absolutely essential for both undergraduate and graduate students as well as policy and business adults.

Other strategic books I admire that are top down in nature (this is a bottom up strategic book. You have to search for my summary reviews, Amazon buries serious reviews with any negative votes:
The Lessons of History
The Fifty-Year Wound: How America's Cold War Victory Has Shaped Our World
The Unconquerable World: Power, Nonviolence and the Will of the People
A More Secure World: Our Shared Responsibility–Report of the Secretary-General's High-level Panel on Threats, Challenges and Change
High Noon 20 Global Problems, 20 Years to Solve Them
Anthropological Intelligence: The Deployment and Neglect of American Anthropology in the Second World War
Global Values 101: A Short Course
Modern Strategy

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