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Sino-Japanese Rivalry Heats Up Over Iran

Sino-Japanese Rivalry Heats Up Over Iran

By Shirzad Azad

It has recently become a popular dictum in Japan that whatever the Japanese lose, it finds its way into the hands of the Chinese. Based on such an assumption, China’s latest adroitness to put itself at the top list of Iran’s trading partners provides only a tiny case of how the rising dubious dragon is conquering Japan’s oversea markets one after another.

Since the Chinese ambassador to Iran announced last year that his country would become Iran’s primary trade partner in the near future, China has replaced Japan for the first time to stand as the Persian Gulf country’s biggest trading ally. Iran had already decided to have Beijing replace Tokyo as the No. 1 importer of Iranian oil.

While the trade volume between Iran and China in 1998 was $1.215 billion, recent data show that the two-way trade volume between the two nations has increased by 10 times in less than a decade. The volume of Sino-Iranian trade exceeded $9 billion in 2005, and Iran’s imports from China rose by 360 percent between 2000 and 2005. Imports and exports between the two Asian countries in 2006 surged 43% from the previous year to $14.45 billion.

Iran’s eastward looking foreign policy and its vacillation toward the West might have been influential in China’s gains in that country; however, Japan’s declining share of economic interests in Iran is attributed to some other reasons.

China’s soaring energy needs have been a key element to approach Iran. Growing Sino-Iranian ties and their close partnership for fuel resources have progressed to a new stage. China’s increasing thirst for oil has made it imperative for the dragon to get closer to the resource-rich Middle East.

The Japanese, on the other side, are talking of a new partnership with the Arab countries alongside the Persian Gulf. The fall of the Saddam regime in Iraq has also relatively facilitated the ground for Japanese companies to invest in that turmoil-torn country.

Japan’s dilatory tactics to postpone the development of the massive Azadegan oil field, mainly because of American pressures, left the Iranians with no option but to cancel the lucrative contract last year, even though the Japanese don’t like to see that the Azadegan prize finds its fate in the hands of the Chinese.

Considering Iran’s nuclear issue, whenever a top Chinese official meets the Iranians, he or she often emphasizes that the nuclear program is Iran’s legitimate right and it is not the business of the West to oppose Iran’s policy. China’s diplomatic dexterity succeeds when it skillfully assuages the West by voting against Iran in the U.N. Security Council. The Chinese then simply justify their double-crossing behavior toward the Iranians saying “we are sorry, but we can’t jeopardize our huge economic market in the United States and hopefully you understand our position.”

When it comes to a vote on key international institutions working on the nuclear problem, the Japanese feel no hesitation to raise their hands in favor of their Western allies. Japan has also been fully committed in implementing those bodies’ decisions and resolutions on Iran’s nuclear program.

After all, Chinese smiling diplomacy and face-to-face contacts with the Iranians pay off enormously. There is even a rivalry among the Chinese leaders for an Iran visit. China’s top communist officials from the president to the chairman of the national people’s congress and from the foreign minister to the chief of many other ministries have all paid a visit to Iran.

Hardly any season passes without a VIP visit from Beijing to Tehran. Chinese industries and businesses are even more enthusiastic to go to Iran for new opportunities. A Tehran trip has become a routine business for many top managers of Chinese companies, from automakers to textile producers.

Compared to their communist counterparts in China, Japanese top political leaders have so far been reluctant, or rather cautious, for face-to-face contacts and direct communications with Iranian officials. Former Prime Minister Takeo Fukuda, father of current Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda, was the first and the last Japanese leader who visited Iran around three decades ago.

Despite China’s recent surge in Iran, the relationship between Japan and Iran in political, economic and cultural aspects is moving forward in fairly good conditions. Early this week, Iran appointed its outgoing ambassador to Tokyo as deputy minister for European and American affairs in the ministry of foreign affairs. At the same time, Iran also appointed the deputy minister for legal and international affairs of the same ministry as its new ambassador to Japan. Iran’s current foreign minister was once the country’s ambassador to Japan as well. Such appointments indicate how Iran regards Japan as an important partner and a major weight in regional and global affairs.

With 11.5% of the total, Iran is still Japan’s third largest provider of crude oil. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates stand in first and second place with 31.1% and 25.4%, respectively.

Although less than 10,000, Iranians are the biggest community of foreigners in Japan from a Middle East country. The biggest number of Japanese citizens who have ever associated with a West Asian nation are those Japanese who have established a family relationship mainly through marriage to an Iranian either in Japan and North America or in Iran. Popular baseball player Yu Darvish, who has an Iranian father and a Japanese mother, is only one outcome of such connections between the Japanese and the Iranians.


Shirzad Azad is an East-West Asian Relations Researcher at Aoyama Gakuin University in Tokyo.

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