The Iran Nuclear Issue: The View from Beijing
Asia Briefing N°100
17 Feb 2010
The revelation in 2009 of nuclear facilities near Qom intensified international criticism of Iran’s opaque nuclear development. As Western countries prepare to pursue tougher sanctions at the UN, China’s acquiescence as a permanent Security Council member is vital but will be difficult to obtain. Beijing is reluctant to pursue further sanctions, insisting that a solution to the nuclear impasse must be sought first and foremost through diplomacy. It emphasises that as long as Iran honours its Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT) commitments not to use nuclear technology for military purposes, it should not be obliged to forgo its rights, including enrichment, under that accord.
Beijing is unconvinced that Iran has the ability to develop nuclear weapons in the short term and does not share the West’s sense of urgency about the possibility of a nuclear-armed Iran, despite the risks that this would present to China’s long-term interests. Moreover, it does not believe the sanctions proposed by the West will bring about a solution to the issue, particularly given the failure of this approach so far. And while Beijing has stated that it supports a “nuclear-free” Middle East, it does not want to sacrifice its own energy interests in Iran. However, if China finds itself facing unanimous support for sanctions from other Security Council members, it will delay but not block a resolution, while seeking to weaken its punitive terms.
China has vested interests in a good relationship with Iran. Iran is China’s third largest source of imported crude oil and possesses the abundant energy reserves that the rising power needs to sustain its rapid economic growth. China’s thirst for energy and its vast foreign reserves are an ideal complement to Iran, which has the world’s second-largest crude oil reserves but desperately needs investment to develop them. But China’s priorities in Iran go beyond economic interests. Strong bilateral relations help to counter U.S. dominance in the Middle East and increase Beijing’s strategic leverage. China sees Iran’s influence in the Middle East and Central Asia as useful to advancing its political, economic and strategic agenda in that region. The two countries also share important historical and political affinities, shaped by suspicion towards the West and reinforced by an experience of sanctions and a perception of U.S. interference in their domestic politics. At the same time, the condemnation by some Iranian clerics of Chinese actions following the July 2009 Xinjiang riots has also led Beijing to view the relationship through the lens of protecting its domestic stability.
Chinese officials have been pursuing a delay-and-weaken strategy with regard to UN sanctions by focusing on the importance of a negotiated settlement. Pursuit of the diplomatic track delays punitive action and maximises Beijing’s bargaining power with regard to both Iran and the West. Nevertheless, if Russia finally supports sanctions, China will likely come on board to avoid diplomatic isolation. Ultimately, Beijing will not side with Iran at the expense of its relations with the U.S. Despite recent troubles in the Sino-U.S. relationship, China still values those ties more than its ties to Tehran. To protect its interests, however, it will negotiate strongly to weaken the terms of proposed sanctions.
This briefing examines the factors influencing China’s policy towards Iran, the framework within which Beijing will ultimately make its decisions and the likely implications for international efforts to address the nuclear issue, particularly within the UN.