Forget the U.S. and Europe. China is the key player in the Iranian nuclear crisis
By BILL POWELL
Sunday, Jan. 22, 2006
Really now, isn’t working tirelessly toward a shared goal with your allies wonderful? Who wouldn’t share in the joy of E.U. foreign affairs czar Javier Solana, German Chancellor Angela Merkel or even — yes — President George W. Bush, as they rhapsodize about the way in which the U.S and the leading West European powers have stood shoulder-to-shoulder trying to get Iran to give up its nuclear ambitions? Of course, these negotiations have gone nowhere, because Tehran rejects their very premise. (What nuclear weapons?) No matter: the Bush Administration has, for once, won praise from pundits delighted at the multilateralism now apparently in vogue in the White House.
The only problem with all of this — how to put it politely? — is that none of it matters. From the beginning of the Iranian crisis, the eventual diplomatic response to Tehran was always destined to be settled in one place, far from “the West.” For whether the world stands any chance of eventually imposing sanctions that might get the mullahs’ attention will be decided in China, by President Hu Jintao and the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party.
As the crisis plays itself out, there are three critical facts to remember. First, China is one of five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council. Even if the U.S. and its European allies can persuade Russia to abstain when the question of applying sanctions against Iran eventually comes to a head, Washington still needs China aboard. Second, Beijing imports a huge and growing amount of oil and gas, and an increasing portion of that is bound to come from the Persian Gulf. Third, Beijing wouldn’t be directly threatened if Iran got the bomb. Now put yourself in Hu’s shoes. Your two biggest trading partners, the U.S. and the E.U., are soon going to come pleading with you not to vote against sanctions that, if they are to have any meaning, will include Iran’s oil and gas exports. What will you do?
Few major powers practice a more coldly realist foreign policy than China. Beijing’s external affairs are closely intertwined with its domestic policy, and the watchword that drives both is stability. Beijing seeks continued economic growth, because rising living standards provide the party’s only claims to legitimacy. So the question is this: If he is not to veto sanctions on Iran, what can Hu get that he doesn’t already have?
For starters, there is North Korea. If it is going to abstain on sanctions against Iran, says one Western diplomat in Beijing, China will probably insist on an absolute, “don’t-even-think-about-it” rejection of any U.S. plans to take North Korea and its nukes to the Council. China doesn’t want to put more pressure on Kim Jong Il’s regime. It wants less — in part so that fewer refugees from North Korea cross into China. Further, Hu believes China’s own stability is enhanced by the continued modernization of its military. To Beijing’s fury, Washington last year pressured the E.U. to maintain restrictions on weapons sales to Beijing. China wants those constraints dropped. To fuel its growth, Beijing also needs to buy oil without having to worry about the U.S. — the world’s largest consumer of oil — working at cross purposes. That includes in places like Saudi Arabia, Washington’s long-time ally, and even in the U.S. itself — where a political uproar last year deterred China’s cnooc from buying Unocal. Beijing, in short, could drive a hard bargain in return for its acquiescence on sanctions.
So what will Hu do? The conventional view is that China will never endorse serious economic measures against Iran because it needs oil and gas too badly. China has blocked Council action against Sudan because of its oil interests there, despite the genocide in Darfur. But I wonder. In this case, realists seek, above all, to prevent a military conflict in the wider Persian Gulf. That, given China’s rapidly growing appetite for oil from the entire region — not just Iran — would be an economic nightmare for Beijing. China, a senior Western official believes, may well understand that anything short of stiff sanctions might make a military solution — perhaps by Israel — more likely, not less. “If the United States has any chance of persuading Israel not to take matters into its own hands, it will only be if the world presents a united front on sanctions that actually mean something,” says the official. “China,” he continues, “has much to gain by doing the right thing.” Don’t be surprised if it does.