Despite a recent controversy about China siding with the United Arab Emirates against Iran, Beijing’s Consulate General officially opened in Bandar Abbas, a key port city.
In his address at the official opening ceremony of the consulate, Chinese Ambassador to Iran Chang Hua hailed the move as a fresh "landmark moment in China-Iran relations," adding that Beijing considers ties with the Islamic Republic “strategic.”
However, earlier this month during a visit to Saudi Arabia by Chinese President XI Jinping, China had signed off on a joint statement with the Gulf Cooperation Council, where a UAE claim on three Iranian islands were mentioned. This led to an avalanche of criticism against the Iranian regime, which has been boasting about its strategic ties with Beijing.
Noting that China supports and respects Iran’s national sovereignty and territorial integrity, Chang said “China decisively supports Iran against foreign intervention and for preserving its national sovereignty, territorial integrity, and national dignity.”
He highlighted that China sees ties with Iran from a strategic point of view, reaffirming Beijing’s determination to expand its partnership with Iran based on bilateral agreements as well as the 25-year comprehensive cooperation agreement between the two countries.
The opening of the consulate is described as an opportunity to actively implement the 25-year deal and China’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative, a global infrastructure development strategy to invest in nearly 150 countries and international organizations. The BRI, originally named, “One Belt, One Road,” is an international development strategy as China looks to expand its influence worldwide by improving trade routes. As of December 2021, China had expanded its’ BRI—which includes infrastructure developments across land corridors, in ports, across maritime routes, as well as over-land links (bridges, tunnels, etc.)— into 142 countries. Developing diplomatic relations with Iran is crucial to China’s ability to implement the BRI.
An Iranian tanker near loading port in the Persian Gulf.
Adel Shahrzad, the deputy governor of Hormozgan province where the port is located, said during his speech that Iran's southern provinces look forward to increasing cooperation with China, adding that the opening of the consulate general will play an important role in developing bilateral relations and enhancing exchanges in various fields.
The area of responsibility of China's Consulate General in Bandar Abbas includes eight Iranian provinces in the south, namely Khuzestan province, Chaharmahal and Bakhtiari, Kohgiluyeh and Boyer-Ahmad, Fars, Bushehr, Kerman, Hormozgan, and Sistan-Baluchestan province.
Reports of the imminent inauguration of the consulate were circulating in media since at least a year ago but its final move can be seen as a sign of détente following the controversial joint statement by China and the GCC about three Iranian islands in the Persian Gulf.
Iran’s Council of Ministers approved the opening of a Chinese consulate in Bandar-Abbas, Iran’s most significant trading and military port on December 29th, 2021—China’s first consulate in Iran. While at face value this may seem like a benign partnership between two developing countries, it might have far-reaching significance for Iran and the region.
The new Chinese consulate in Bandar-Abbas will share its home with The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ main naval base. Iran’s invitation of an emerging global superpower into their backyard could pose a threat to Iran, should regional disputes one day arise. China has already “attempted to claim more internal waters, territorial sea, exclusive economic zone, and continental shelf than it is entitled under international law,” the spokesman of the US Navy’s Seventh Fleet said in 2019.
Although bilateral trade has declined in the past two years, China is still Iran’s top trading partner, buying illicit Iranian crude oil in the face of US sanctions. However, out of the two, China alone has enjoyed a favorable trade partnership, while Iran has been isolated internationally by essentially only being able to trade with China, forcing Iran to trade its oil reserves at much lower prices than it would otherwise like, although no official figures are available.