The China Factor in Iran's Nuclear Strategy

By Charles Freeman

Iran's apparently clandestine efforts to build a nuclear weapons program are a major foreign policy challenge for the Obama administration. Last year, President Obama challenged the Islamic republic to cease its nuclear program by the end of December or the United States would be forced to consider new economic sanctions. That deadline has come and gone, and yet there is little if any chance that any new sanctions will be imposed in the near term, largely because of China's recalcitrance. On January 5, 2010, China's ambassador to the United Nations effectively foreclosed on U.S. efforts to win UN support for new sanctions, declaring "This is not the right time or right moment for sanctions because diplomatic efforts are still going on." The effective standoff between Washington and Beijing on the issue reflects not only differing interests and foreign policy approaches, but also the changing roles of the two powers in global events, as well as a complex bilateral diplomatic dance.

Q: Is China motivated purely by self-interest in opposing economic sanctions?

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China does have a robust economic relationship with Iran. Bilateral trade was estimated to be $27 billion in 2008, and Iran exported some 408,000 barrels of oil a day to China last year. With Western energy companies increasingly sidelined by sanctions, Chinese firms have stepped in to fill the void. In May 2009 at a conference in Tehran, Chinese interests signed nearly $17 billion in investment and trade agreements. So the economic relationship is clearly of significant importance, and China is not anxious to jeopardize its investment. But that is not the only factor.

China is guided in its foreign relations by two primary principles, both of which reflect domestic priorities. First, China wants to encourage a stable international environment in which it can best pursue domestic development without conflict or other limiting factors. To that end, Beijing is much more likely to pursue diplomatic means that preserve cordiality and de-emphasize conflict in international relations. Second, China is extremely sensitive to international policies that "interfere" in sovereign decisions, because of sensitivities to perceived international interference in Taiwan, Tibet, and Xinjiang. So China would, even absent its increasing economic interests in Iran, be less inclined to impose sanctions, which by their nature are inherently destabilizing and necessarily interfere with sovereignty.

Q: But doesn't an Iranian nuclear weapons program destabilize the international environment in ways that run counter to Chinese interests?

Yes, absolutely. China has shown support for Iran's right to peaceful nuclear technology, but it has also supported some of the UN Security Council resolutions against Iran's nuclear enrichment program. Indeed in April 2008, China blew the whistle on Iranian efforts to acquire nuclear weapons technology by releasing intelligence on the subject to UN officials. China also voted in favor of the November 2009 International Atomic Energy Agency resolution calling for Iran's "full cooperation" to clarify its nuclear program (drawing protest from Iran's foreign minister). Despite the apparent involvement of a number of Chinese firms, with or without the explicit acquiescence of Beijing, in attempting to transfer dual-use materials and technologies to Iran that might be used in nuclear devices, foreign policy experts are not unconcerned about the negative impact of Iran's nuclear program on China's efforts to preserve a stable international environment in which it can best pursue its own development. Many in Beijing are aware of the potential domino effect of Iran's acquisition of nuclear weapons on (a) Israeli efforts to eliminate the threat of those weapons and (b) Saudi Arabia's inevitable interest in acquiring nuclear weapons in response to Iran's acquisition of same. On the latter point, Saudi energy exports to China are greater than those from Iran, and Saudi concerns about Iran's nuclear ambitions are a factor in China's thinking as well.

However, despite its increasing punching power in global affairs, Chinese leaders have not yet seized a mantle of responsibility for global stability as a whole. Instead, China clings to a longstanding principle that China should not be a global leader, but should instead concentrate on shoring up more narrowly defined self-interests. In this regard, China does not perceive a nuclear Iran as necessarily presenting a direct threat to China, and since China does not view itself as having a global responsibility to preserve any particular global order, the security challenge of a nuclear Iran is significantly less a priority to Beijing than it is to Washington.

Q: What does China's stance on the Iran nuclear issue mean for U.S.-China relations?

Throughout 2009-and particularly during the February visit of Secretary of State Clinton to Beijing, the July meetings of the U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue in Washington, and President Obama's visit to Beijing in November-the Obama administration attempted to focus the U.S.-China dialogue on matters not merely of bilateral significance, but of the United States and China as partners in matters of global import. Some observers have likened the new relationship to a virtual "G-2," in which the two countries would work to put a joint imprimatur on policies to deal with the most pressing of global challenges, from energy and climate change to nuclear proliferation. Thus far, after contentious exchanges on climate change in Copenhagen this past December, inconclusive efforts to rein in North Korean nuclear ambitions, and the current diplomatic impasse on Iran, observers would be well-advised to shelve suggestions of a G-2 or other notions that Washington and Beijing can agree on any global grand strategy for the time being.

An array of serious bilateral challenges-from the inevitable frictions over trade during an economic downturn in a political year; to ongoing differences over Tibet and Taiwan; to continuing disagreements over U.S. surveillance activities in the South China Sea; and other matters running the gauntlet of U.S. and Chinese security, economic, and normative concerns-will keep Washington and Beijing busy in 2010. There are some policy thinkers in Beijing, although they are not necessarily in the majority, who view a stronger Iran as a counterweight to U.S. dominance in Western Asia, and their voices may gain traction in Chinese policy circles. Although good relations with the United States are a cornerstone of China's overall foreign policy, friction over Iran is likely to continue to be a challenging bilateral issue, and under the circumstances, visions of a U.S.-China condominium on the subject, or on any other major global issue, are likely to be dashed.

 

 

Charles W. Freeman III holds the Freeman Chair in China Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

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