Iran nuclear issue: What will China do?

The diplomatic dogfight over Iran's nuclear program is generating noise all over the world. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad grabbed headlines when he declared that Israel should be "wiped off the map" and again when Iran removed International Atomic Energy

Iran nuclear issue: What will China do?

Attention then shifted to London, where American and European officials called for a Feb. 2 emergency meeting of the IAEA to push for Iran's referral to the UN Security Council. Israeli officials have made their voices heard as well. Several of them have warned that Israel will not accept a nuclear Iran.

But for all the noise from Tehran, London, Washington, Tel Aviv and Vienna, it is the quiet country, China, that may determine the direction and pace of the growing crisis.

Weeks ago, Chinese officials pledged to veto any U.S. or European attempt to impose UN sanctions on Iran. But since Ahmadinejad began to ratchet up tensions and the West responded with threats of its own, China has kept its intentions to itself. Beijing's role in the conflict matters because, as a permanent member of the Security Council, China can veto any UN sanctions proposal.

Beijing has good reason to use that veto. In 2004, Iran agreed in principle to sell China 250 million tons of liquefied natural gas over 30 years, a deal valued at $70 billion. China already imports 14 percent of its oil from Iran. Sinopec, a Chinese energy company, hopes to develop Iran's enormous Yadavaran oil field. China must consider its dependence on Iranian energy when it decides how it will ultimately vote.

Iran likes doing business with China because Beijing does not condition its commercial agreements on political criteria. But China knows that Iran is not the only energy-rich country awaiting its vote. Were China to support tough sanctions on Iran, other states now doing business with China - Sudan, Venezuela, Angola, and others - might hedge their bets and shift some of their resources toward other, more loyal, customers. After all, China's willingness to provide its commercial partners with political cover is a fundamental, if unspoken, part of their trade relations.

China believes its national security depends on economic growth. That growth depends on access to global commodities, particularly oil and gas. That's why, for example, China has blocked UN efforts to sanction energy-rich Sudan over human-rights abuses in the country.

Yet, if China's calculations are so simple, why has Beijing been reluctant - so far - to renew the veto threat?

First, China attaches great importance to improved relations with the United States.

The U.S. Congress threatened last year to slap a 27.5 percent tariff on Chinese imports unless Beijing substantially revalued its currency. The threats will likely be renewed as U.S. midterm elections approach. China further antagonized some in Congress when the Chinese oil firm Cnooc attempted to buy the U.S. energy firm Unocal last year.

Beijing alarmed some in the White House when it expressed interest in the oil to be extracted from Canadian tar sands - a resource coveted by the United States. Beijing's commercial deals with Venezuela and its unwillingness to enforce U.S. copyrights in the country have further alienated Washington.

China would very much like to work past these issues and fears that obstruction of a U.S.-led push for sanctions on Iran will further poison relations.

Beijing would also like the European Union to lift its arms embargo on China, in place since 1989. Britain, France, and Germany resolutely oppose Iran's nuclear program. A Chinese veto would undermine Beijing's efforts to end the embargo and would further complicate Sino-EU relations.

As a result, Beijing hopes to delay as long as possible the day when it must take sides and cast its vote. Complicating matters further, China finds itself in uncharted waters. Never before has China played such a pivotal role in a non-Asian security dispute of global importance. Russia has veto power as well, but hopes to avoid diplomatic isolation by following China's lead.

What choice will China ultimately make? First, China will likely resist U.S. and EU efforts to win an immediate IAEA referral of Iran to the Security Council, even if the referral can only be delayed a few weeks.

Beijing still hopes it can engage Tehran behind the scenes and moderate Iran's position, though Chinese leaders have few illusions that Iran might back down. Once the matter reaches the United Nations, which now seems all but inevitable, China may promise to accept a symbolic censure of Iran, in exchange for U.S. and British promises to delay any vote on sanctions.

In the end, Beijing would probably veto any attempt to impose sanctions on Iran's energy exports. There is already plenty of upward pressure on global oil prices, a critical component of China's continued growth. Unrest in Nigeria, uncertainty in Iraq, and the so-called Iran premium are likely to help push oil prices higher. Beijing doesn't need the added market volatility that energy sanctions would generate.

Yet, knowing China will draw the line at energy, U.S. and European negotiators may offer other sanctions packages that might win a Chinese abstention. These might include restrictions on sales to Iran of high-tech products or military hardware. Might China support an arms embargo on Iran to help lift the EU arms embargo on China, and improve Beijing's relations with Washington in the bargain?

Probably not. Beyond a symbolic censure, Beijing is unlikely to support any action against Iran that would poison its relations with a key energy supplier. Iran lacks reliable allies with global influence. But its energy assets give it leverage. That leverage is more likely than not to sway China's ultimate choice.

But China's reluctance to offer a definitive statement on the issue suggests it is still weighing its options. Its leadership hopes to avoid, or at least delay, the day of reckoning. But when the crucial moment arrives, all interested parties will hold their breath as China finally breaks its silence.


Güncelleme Tarihi: 20 Eylül 2018, 18:16