TO Chinese officials sitting in Peking and pondering their country's security strategy, Southwest Asia seems quite remote. China's immediate security concerns are in East Asia and the Pacific region. They include fear of Japan's remilitarization, Vietnam's efforts to dominate Indochina, and the need to deal with challenges and opportunities presented by the new Soviet policy in the Far East. Yet neither Southwest Asia's remoteness nor China's other security preoccupations mean a lack of interest in events in that region. The Chinese readily admit their limitations in trying to affect events in Southwest Asia. Nevertheless, they try to maximize what influence they do have and to use it to maintain or create a balance of power there that is most conducive to stability.
China's interest in Southwest Asia is both geopolitical and economic. Geopolitically, China has a common, though narrow, border with Afghanistan. Events in Southwest Asia have a direct bearing on the balance of political and military power in the Indian subcontinent; that is of great concern to China, especially in light of the rather turbulent history of Sino-Indian relations. And the region borders on the Soviet Union.
Economically, the Chinese are conscious of the trade and investment opportunities in the states of Southwest Asia, especially the oil producers. At a time when China is racing against the clock to modernize its economy and try to gain new economic partners and sources of foreign exchange earnings, this potential is well appreciated.
Chinese officials welcome some recent developments in the region, but are concerned about the area's long-term prospects for stability. They are pleased that Soviet troops are leaving Afghanistan, but remain concerned about its future. The Chinese are not convinced that the troop withdrawal means the end of Soviet ambitions to dominate Afghanistan politically. The Chinese are also aware that the departure of Soviet forces does not mean the return of stability. Rather, they see a long period of instability in Afghanistan, generated by infighting among different Afghan factions and exacerbated by manipulation of internal divisions by the great powers and countries of the region - such as India, Pakistan, Iran, and even Saudi Arabia.
The Chinese are concerned about the impact that the outcome of the Afghan drama will have on the balance of power in Southwest Asia and even perhaps on the future of the Indian subcontinent. They particularly worry about the impact of prolonged turmoil in Afghanistan on Pakistan's stability.
China is also paying close attention to the continuing Iran-Iraq war and its implications for Iran's future. China's economic interests require it to keep on friendly terms with Iraq and the Arab states. It also wants to consolidate its ties with the Arab states of the Persian Gulf, particularly at a time when the USSR seems to be making diplomatic headway there. The sale of Chinese missiles to Saudi Arabia was the result of these considerations.
Iran, however, is more important to China geopolitically. It lies in close proximity to the USSR, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. From the Chinese perspective, a change of Iranian policy toward the USSR or Pakistan could have a highly negative impact on the regional balance of power. It is true that rivalry with the USSR no longer dominates China's foreign policy either at the regional or global level. Nevertheless, the Chinese are unwilling to run any unnecessary risks.
China does not want the Soviets to dominate the Persian Gulf and still sees Iran as the principal buffer against Soviet penetration. Peking is aware that a pro-Soviet Iran could be more willing to cooperate with India and thus make life difficult for Pakistan. Thus China tries to prevent Iran's turning to the USSR, and it is concerned about aspects of US policy which seem to be pushing Iran in that direction. In fact, either consciously or unconsciously, the Chinese have tried to make their country a counterweight to Soviet influence in Iran in the absence of an American presence. They are surprised at US unhappiness with Peking's ties to Tehran.
The Chinese are concerned about Iran's future in the post-Khomeini era. This does not imply that they are particularly happy with the current Iranian regime. Indeed, they are worried about aspects of Iran's Islamic ideology and its potential impact on China's Muslim minority.
But as one Chinese expert has put it, before the Iranian message can reach China, it must pass through Soviet Central Asia - thus indicating the remoteness of this threat. Yet the Chinese are keenly aware that a sudden collapse of the current Iranian regime could lead to prolonged turmoil, with negative implications for Pakistan and all of Southwest Asia. Alternatively, a more radical regime could emerge that would be receptive to close ties with Moscow.
Based on this analysis, the Chinese fear that too much external pressure on Iran could produce these consequences. On this issue, Peking parts company with US policy. It favors an approach toward Iran that would allow it to maintain its distance from the USSR, to forestall collapse, and to find a face-saving way of extricating itself from the war with Iraq.
In sum, China's analysis of Southwest Asia's conditions is characterized by a sober appreciation of factors of regional instability. China also has a realistic view of long-term Soviet security interests and ambitions in the region, even in the age of Gorbachev and reform. Thus, the Chinese strive to prevent Soviet domination of Southwest Asia and to maintain a regional balance of power that is conducive to stability. This analysis and China's policies contain useful lessons for the US, especially for Washington's approach toward Iran and the Persian Gulf.
Shireen T. Hunter is deputy director of the Middle East Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. She recently visited the People's Republic of China.