China feels US-Iran fallout
By Peter Lee
Asia Times Online
The question of the day in Washington is will the People's
Republic of China veto further United Nations Security
Council sanctions against Iran over Tehran's nuclear
Informed opinion says "no".
China has exercised its veto only six times in 30 years on
the council. In matters core to national priorities, like
punishing countries such as Guatemala and Macedonia for
their ties to the Republic of China (Taiwan) and protecting
the interests of Pakistan, it has acted alone.
However, on broader geopolitical issues, in recent years it
has vetoed resolutions only when joined by at least one
other Security Council member.
France and the United Kingdom are lined up solidly behind
the United States on Iran's nuclear program, which some say
is geared towards making a nuclear bomb, a charge Tehran
Russia this year is interested in improving ties with the
US and Europe and has moved toward support of sanctions. No
Russian veto, no Chinese veto, says the conventional
On the other hand, chances of China voting for sanctions
are slim. A press report covering Chinese Foreign Minister
Yang Jiechi's visit to Paris at the beginning of February
says it all: "China Says Iran Sanctions Hinder Diplomacy."
Abstention is, therefore, China's most likely course.
Beijing's reaction might be expected to be a dismissive and
a resigned shrug: a symbolic vote, another toothless round
of sanctions, more political kabuki, and eventually
business as usual.
However, China's expected non-vote will be accompanied by
new feelings of unease and anger, reflecting Beijing's
growing suspicion that an important motivation for the Iran
sanctions, and the escalation of Iran tensions in general,
is Washington's desire to employ the issue as a wedge
In past years, China could regard US sanctions against
authoritarian regimes with a certain amount of complacency.
The George W Bush administration's heavy-handed approach
dismayed and divided natural allies of the US and drove its
targets deeper into China's embrace.
However, the Obama administration has decided to supplement
brute power with smart power. It apparently promotes
divisive international initiatives only when the splits in
international opinion and alliances are expected to go
China first got a taste of the smart-power approach in
December at the Copenhagen climate summit. The US linked
the release of billions of dollars of climate adaptation
aid to vulnerable developing countries with China's
acceptance of a satisfactory transparency regime. Its
delegation passed the message to smaller nations that
China's intransigence was standing between them and
billions of dollars of much-needed assistance.
Despite the treaty debacle, the geopolitical results for
the Obama administration were encouraging. The European
Union sided with the US. According to an internal Chinese
report, a good number of Group of 77 nations were, for the
large part, influenced by the American position but did not
openly confront China. China cobbled together an alliance
with the emerging economies of Brazil and India and,
despite a concerted "blame China" effort by the US and the
UK, was able to limit the political damage.
However, it was a sobering experience for Chinese
diplomats. The report concluded "A conspiracy by developed
nations to divide the camp of developing nations [was] a
Now, the Obama administration is picking on the regionally
and globally unpopular government of Iran, thereby exposing
China as the regime's lone international supporter of note.
The US has worked to bring the EU and Russia to its side.
The EU, at least, is now an enthusiastic ally. Relieved to
be dealing with a judicious and consultative American
president, it no longer sees the need to accommodate a
greater role for China on the world stage.
Russia has joined the American team (with sub voce
reservations), reportedly in response to the Obama
administration's concessions on shelving plans for a
missile defense shield in Eastern Europe.
The State Department has also worked with the Gulf states
to gain their support for a policy of putting Iran in its
As far as the China issue is concerned, America's direct
solicitation of China's Security Council vote involved
Obama passing the word to President Hu Jintao that China's
interests would suffer if diplomatic pressure failed,
Israel attacked Iran's nuclear facilities, and the price of
oil went up.
It is unlikely that the Israel attack card was persuasive
to the Chinese leadership, and did little more than
convince them that Washington was using it as an excuse to
justify an extension of US influence in the Middle East.
A pre-emptive attack by Israel to nip Iran's nuclear
ambitions in the bud is unlikely.
Despite Tel Aviv's brave talk of its ability and
determination to launch a raid independent of US approval,
even a resounding success would probably only slow down the
program a few years while earning the undying enmity of the
Iranian people and the Muslim world toward Israel ... and
the United States, which would have to provide Israel with
flight privileges over Iraq to stage the attack.
American assertions that the Iranian nuclear program will
spark a ruinous arms race in the Gulf no doubt elicited
similar skepticism from China, with the unspoken
observation that, since most of those arms would be
supplied by the US and EU, the onus for (and profits of) an
arms race would probably fall to the West.
American efforts to wedge the Arab states away from China
are more likely to attract Beijing's attention and concern.
James Phillips of the Heritage Foundation spun US Secretary
of State Hillary Clinton's current trip to the Middle East:
Clinton will be looking to the Arabs to "act as a
counterweight [to Iran] on China and help unlock its
Security Council vote.
The US is hoping to use these discussions with the Arabs as
a way to encourage China to look at its long-term economic
interests," Phillips added. "The Arabs could let the
Chinese know that it will hurt them economically with the
Arab countries in the long run if China clings to this
United States protestations that all this diplomatic
maneuvering directed at China is justified by the need to
exhibit international unity on Iran ring hollow.
Invocation of the Israeli attack and the Gulf states arms
race bogeymen notwithstanding, the primary justification
for the current spasm of concern over Iran's nascent
nuclear activities is the dreaded Western "impatience",
which appears very similar to the manufactured impatience
that sent the coalition of the willing charging into Iraq
The stated remedy for this impatience, the UN sanctions, is
unlikely to work.
Russia cares enough about its relationship with Tehran to
make sure anything that gets through the Security Council
will not be particularly catastrophic.
On February 11, Deputy Foreign Minister Andrey Ryabkov made
this memorable statement: "We do not think sanctions will
work, but we understand that it is impossible to get by
without them in certain circumstances."
With early reports that a massive government presence
marginalized Green Movement demonstrators on the February
11 anniversary of the Iranian revolution of 1979, regime
change in Iran is probably off the table, too.
Even if a new regime came to power, Iran's national
commitment to nuclear power - and the perceived nuclear
weapons threat to the region - would probably remain
By conventional geopolitical logic, China would seem to
have the right idea: more jaw-jaw and engagement or, as it
called for in a recent editorial, "patience, patience and
But US policy seems to be moving in the opposite direction,
stoking the crisis instead of lowering the heat.
So what's China's takeaway from the Iran crisis?
Absent an immediate, credible threat of an Israeli attack
on Iran, the US is rushing the international community
toward "crushing sanctions" on Tehran that, if carried out,
would result in disruption of Iran's energy exports.
If this were to actually occur, the big loser in the Iran
crisis would be China.
As a Chinese analyst told Reuters: "Fully going with
Western expansion of sanctions on Iran so they restrict
Iran's energy exports would amount to disguised sanctions
against China, and China certainly won't agree," Wang Feng,
a researcher at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences told
the Global Times, a Chinese newspaper published on
Reportedly, the US had advised China it would dispatch
Hillary Clinton to visit Iran's enemies in the Persian Gulf
and ensure that, if sanctions disrupted the supply of
Iranian oil, Saudi Arabia and its associates would ensure
that China's petroleum needs would continue to be met.
It is unlikely that China's vision of its energy security
involves relying on the US's good offices to deal with the
consequences of a US-imposed policy that it rejects and had
no voice in formulating.
In any case, the prospects for an oil-price Armageddon are
unlikely. Given free-market realities and the greed of oil
producers inside and outside the Gulf, the world would
suffer as much as China if Iranian crude disappeared from
For Beijing, the biggest concern is its perception that
Europe, Russia and the Gulf states are signing on to an
anti-Iran initiative that could impact China's interests in
such a major way without accommodating China's priorities.
From Beijing's point of view, China is the main superpower
stakeholder in the Iran crisis.
So it is asking why isn't it being consulted? Indeed, why
aren't its critical interests given priority, instead of
subjecting it to moonshine about an Israeli attack, an arms
race in the Gulf and lectures about its geopolitical
China is not a threat to the international order, but it is
its most independent and uncontrollable element. There are
growing signs of a shared consensus in the West that
reliance on China as a stabilizing financial, economic and
geopolitical factor must be reduced.
The past few years have been good to China's competitors
-especially India - and bad for China's allies - Pakistan
By accident or design, the Obama administration's decision
to heat up the Iran controversy has driven another wedge
between China and the US, the EU, the Gulf states and even
The issue for China is whether the purpose of America's
Iran campaign is to isolate Iran ... or to isolate China?
This is a consequence of China's participation in the
security initiatives that the US chooses to organize to
protect and promote its own and loyal allies' interests.
China responded to the escalation of the Iran nuclear
crisis with a remarkable lead editorial in the Global
Times, the international affairs organ of People's Daily,
the government mouthpiece,.
The editorial, with the eye-catching title "Iran and the
West: Neither Should Think of Taking China Hostage",
painted China as the victim of the standoff. In an effort
to be even-handed, both Iran and the West are criticized
for their intransigence.
Nevertheless, both the West and Iran are unheeding at this
time. They both believe that only if they are unyielding,
then the other side will back off. This unenlightened
attitude even extends to their attitude toward China. Both
sides believe that all that's needed is to put pressure on
China, then China will, without considering its own
interests ... lower its head to them ... This thinking is
The use of the loaded term, "lower its head", conjuring
images of the humiliating kowtow, instead of a more neutral
term such as "support one or the other" is an indication
that red lines are being drawn.
The fact that China's main worry is the West, and not Iran,
is unambiguously conveyed in the editorial's conclusion.
Recently in Western public opinion has been a call to use
the Iran issue to isolate China. This is extremely
superficial ... China is a big country and its interests
must be respected. China's dilemma must be sympathized
with. China's proposal opposing sanctions must be
understood. The big powers must cooperate and negotiate on
the Iran issue ...
China is a great country. If anyone seeks to compel her, to
injure her, they will certainly pay the price. Pretty
The editorial is a clear indication that China considers
itself the target - or at least intended collateral damage
- in America's anti-Iran campaign. It makes the case that,
if the Obama administration sincerely cared about its
relationship with China, Washington would back off from the
sanctions campaign and allow negotiations to continue.
But that doesn't look like it's going to happen.
Sanctions will probably go ahead, with China either
abstaining or throwing in a tactical "yes" vote to postpone
an overt breach, and Washington will obtain another point
of leverage against China in the Persian Gulf.
If that happens, China will have to think about adjusting
to a new world situation in which the West seems less
interested in bargaining for its support or respecting its
Peter Lee writes on East and South Asian affairs and their intersection with US foreign policy.