Chinese-Iranian Relations Within the Contexts of the Discourse of Civilisation

The Greek Ministry of Foreign Affairs organised “Ancient Civilizations Forum” in Athens on April 24 with the participation of China, Egypt, Bolivia, India, Iraq, Iran, Italy, Mexico and Peru. Its aim is to develop a broad and multifaceted, positive agenda of joint actions, to support synergies, but also to open a broader debate on the role of culture as a key driver of a modern and multidimensional diplomacy and economic development through international cultural cooperation.[1] The forum was co-sponsored by the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The forum once more confirmed the perception, that the discourse of civilisation is still on the agenda of foreign policy makers as a tool to strengthen the soft power.[2] During the forum Iranian foreign minister, Javad Zarif met with his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi. The Iranian foreign minister welcomed an initiative by China and Greece to hold Ancient Civilizations Forum, and said, “The international community needs dialogue among countries with ancient civilisation.” The Chinese foreign minister, for his part, pointed to the old civilizations of Iran and China, and said,  “In a bid to protect our civilizational records, Iran and China are needed to cooperate in finding proper solution to the existing problems in the human society and the Greek forum could be a good solution in this respect.”[3] In this regard, within this article, we will try to analyse the relations between China and Iran, taking into consideration the discourse of civilisation of two countries.

The end of the Cold War signalled the end of the international lexicon used in that period. While scholars and politicians were in search of new paradigms to define the post-Cold War world order, Samuel Huntington introduced his then well-known thesis;  ‘Clash of Civilisations.’ According to his assumptions, new conflicts in international politics should emerge in the fault lines among civilisations. As a reaction to this thesis, many suggestions and initiatives were proposed and discussed in academia while in foreign policy, diplomats began to utilise discourse of civilisation with emphasis on dialogue to create positive image in the international arena. To recall such initiatives, Kazakh President Nazarbayev initiated the series of the Congresses of the Leaders of The World and Traditional Religions. The Spanish Prime Minister, José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero and co-sponsored by the Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan proposed the Alliance of Civilizations (AOC) to the 59th General Assembly of the United Nations in 2005.

Iran and China also appealed to the dialogue of civilisations concept. The matter is that according to the thesis of the ‘Clash of Civilisations’, the main conflict should take place between the Western Civilisation and Islamic civilisation on one hand, and between the Western civilisation and Chinese one on the other. Even more, Huntington predicted that states of Islamic Civilization will make an alliance with China against the West. In this context, Iran and China are the two countries who challenge the Western liberal values such as democracy and Human Rights.

The other countries with Islamic identities as Turkey, Indonesia, Malaysia and Egypt tried somehow to co-exist with and adjust to the Western values. Even Saudi Arabia and Pakistan with strong Islamic worldviews in civilisation context do not confront with the West. But Iran both due to its Islamic ideology and the tensed relations with the USA felt threatened and targeted with the concept of Clash of Civilisations. Therefore, in 2001, former Iranian President Mohammad Khatami introduced the concept of ‘Dialogue among Civilisations’ at the global level. At his initiative, the ‘Dialogue of Civilisations’ was the basis for United Nations’ resolution to name the year 2001 as the Year of Dialogue among Civilisations. As it was stated by Javad Zarif “The envisaged dialogue originated from the assumption that sources of knowledge and wisdom are inherently diversified and that each civilisation has much to offer and much to learn; making dialogue among civilisations mutually enriching and accumulating. This signified a clear departure from “paradigm of exclusion” to “paradigm of dialogue and inclusion”.”[4]

During Khatami’s presidential terms, Iran by pronouncing this initiative tried to improve its relations with the international community. However, this effort of Iranian policy makers was interrupted when Ahmadinejad with his radical rhetoric was elected as the president. In 2013, the newly elected moderate President Rouhani continued Khatami’s foreign policy understanding based on dialogue and cooperation. He presented a similar initiative to the UN General Assembly, premised on the same imperative, calling for the World Against Violence and Extremism (WAVE), which was unanimously approved by the General Assembly.

Chinese foreign policy’s response to the ‘Clash of Civilisations’ is the historical Silk Road which was associated with interaction and dialogue among different civilisations. In this respect, Chinese President Xi Jinping in 2013 presented the new concept of ‘The Silk Road Economic Belt and the 21st-century Maritime Silk Road’ (shortly, One Belt, One Road Initiative’) which became the soft power tool of Chinese foreign policy. However, the project can be perceived by some regional and global countries as an economic expansionist policy of China. Therefore, the Chinese government is working hard to prevent such misperception. For example, on May 14-15 of 2017 China is organising ‘One Belt, One Road Forum for International Cooperation’ in Beijing by inviting all countries of the world. According to the official website of the forum, 28 heads of states from Eurasia, Africa and Americas have confirmed to attend the forum. The theme of the forum is “Strengthening International Cooperation and Co-building the ‘Belt and Road’ for Win-win Development”. This forum will be the highest level of an international conference held by China.[5]

As we see, the priority of Chinese foreign policy is to construct a positive image of the country. The matter is that, the rise of China has led to the debates whether it will be peaceful or will lead to the conflict with regional and global powers. According to mainstream theories of International Relations; China will clash with the USA due to the political, economic and ideational reasons. But Beijing by referring to the peaceful character of Chinese civilisation and historical experience of the ancient Silk Road is trying to prove the contrary.

Viewed from the dialogue among civilisations discourse, both China and Iran are trying to present themselves as the ancient civilisations which contributed to the progress of the whole humankind. Indeed, both countries have roots in ancient civilisations. Both Chinese and Iranian civilisations played a significant role in the ancient Silk Road.

While China was the producer of silk, Iranian merchants were active in international trade of the period. Iranian colonies which could be evaluated as the cities of the ancient world were spread between China and Rome. The term ‘sart’ which was the general name given by Eurasian Turkic nomads to Persian people meant ‘merchant’ at the same time. The term ‘sauda’ which is used by Central Asian people as the equivalent of word ‘trade’ originally comes from Sogd (Sogdiana), the eastern branch of ancient Iranian people. In the Middle Ages, international trade once more intensified when both civilisations were incorporated into the Mongolian Empire established by Genghis Khan. We must especially mention the impending ally relations between Yuan China of Kublai Khan and Ilkhanid Iran of Hulagu. Kublai and Hulagu were brothers and sons of Tole; the youngest son of Genghis Khan.

Today we are witnessing a new period in revival of the Silk Road. Both China and Iran are interested in stimulating of continental trade. Chinese western border which looks to Eurasia in comparison to the eastern border, is much more predictable and stable. The disintegration of the Soviet Union meant the demise of the threat to China. The aftermath, the delimitation and demarcation of Chinese borders with post-Soviet states led to the emergence of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. From the Chinese perspective, Iran is one of the key countries in Eurasia and within the contexts of the One Road One Belt Initiative. No doubt, Iran’s membership in Shanghai Cooperation Organization will contribute to bilateral relations.

From the Iranian point of view, China is an important partner to balance against the US. Indeed, the more Tehran’s relations with Washington deteriorate, the more Iranian foreign policy towards Eurasia strengthens. Following the abolishment of sanctions, Iran is trying to diversify its economic relations. In this respect, the Economic Cooperation Organization with headquartered in Tehran is significant to intensify regional economy. The organisation which was established by Iran, Turkey and Pakistan was enlarged in 1992 by including Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. In the last summit of the ECO, held in Islamabad on March 1 of 2017, China was invited as an honourable guest. It once more confirms that Iran wants to develop close economic relations with China. In other words, the name of Silk Road project of Iran is ECO.

In the final analysis, both China and Iran are using the discourse of civilisation to improve their images. Both countries try to present themselves as the parties who are fighting against terrorism. The term Silk Road represents the economic dimension of their civilizational discourse. Thus, this discourse serves their foreign policy strategies which aims to construct the image of a country who is for civilisation, progress and prosperity, and against anarchy, disorder, and foreign intervention.


[1] FM Kotzias’ Ancient Civilizations Forum to be held on April 24, 10 Apr 2017, http://thegreekobserver.com/politics/article/7510/fm-kotzias-ancient-civilizations-forum-held-april-24/

[2] Greece to gain soft power through the Ancient Civilizations Forum, April 22, 2017 http://www.keeptalkinggreece.com/2017/04/22/greece-to-gain-soft-power-through-the-ancient-civilizations-forum/

[3] Zarif confers with Chinese counterpart, 23/04/2017

http://en.mfa.ir/index.aspx?siteid=3&fkeyid=&siteid=3&fkeyid=&siteid=3&pageid=1997&newsview=451300

[4] Zarif: Dialogue, moderation twin remedies for many ills of our times, 24/04/2017

http://en.mfa.ir/index.aspx?siteid=3&fkeyid=&siteid=3&fkeyid=&siteid=3&pageid=1997&newsview=451369

[5] Ministry of Foreign Affairs Holds Briefing for Chinese and Foreign Media on President Xi Jinping’s Attendance and Chairing of Related Events of the BRF, April 25, 2017

http://www.beltandroadforum.org/english/n100/2017/0425/c22-214.html