(John Kemp is a Reuters market analyst. The views expressed are
By John Kemp
LONDON Feb 29 China is destined to play a
decisive role in the effectiveness of sanctions against Iran,
and the possibility of eventual military confrontation.
But the country's attitude towards nuclear enrichment and
regime change has gone mostly unexamined by the
western-dominated media and think-tanks.
Too many foreign policy analysts and commentators assume
China's role is essentially passive - lending its de facto
backing to sanctions to support shared aims of restraining
Israel, avoiding the possible disruption of crude exports
through the Strait of Hormuz, and averting nuclear proliferation
and a destabilising arms race in the Middle East.
In reality, China's strategic goals in the Middle East are
much more complicated. The limits to its willingness to support
western policy have been made abundantly clear with the decision
to veto a United Nations Security Council resolution on Syria.
For the government of Iran, no relationship is more
important than that with China. China's approach will be
critical to the impact of sanctions, the future of the nuclear
programme and likelihood of regime change in the years ahead.
China's attitude towards sanctions and ultimate regime
change is crucial for many reasons:
(1) China is Iran's largest single oil customer, while Iran
is one of China's top-five crude suppliers. Bilateral oil flows
are far more important strategically and economically than for
the United States and most EU countries.
(2) China is the world's second-largest oil importer after
the United States. But unlike the United States, which sources
most of its imports from Canada, Latin America and West Africa,
China sources almost half from countries in the Middle East and
(3) Unlike the United States, China is becoming more, not
less dependent on oil imports. U.S. import dependence has been
falling as a result of ethanol blending, a more efficient
vehicle fleet and new domestic resources such as the Bakken and
Eagle Ford shales. In contrast, China has turned from being a
net exporter in the 1990s to relying on imports to meet more
than half of its requirements, and the percentage is growing.
(4) China is acutely conscious of its lack of domestic oil
resources. Securing access to reliable supplies overseas is a
top priority for its oil firms, backed by the full diplomatic
and financial resources of the government.
(5) China is the only super-power besides the United States
and is a veto-wielding permanent member of the United Nations
(6) Beset by its own internal disputes in Tibet and
Xinjiang, an unresolved conflict with Taiwan and the priority
given to preserving internal social stability and the rule of
the Communist Party, China remains a resolute supporter of the
doctrine of non-intervention in the internal affairs of states
and is deeply suspicious of humanitarian and liberal
(7) China is one of the five declared nuclear weapons states
that have signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. While it
upholds the treaty's principles, its approach to proliferation
of weapons and delivery systems is more complex than the three
western weapons states, as its complex strategy with North Korea
(8) China's government and military and large parts of its
social and economic elite remain concerned about U.S. claims to
political exceptionalism, ambitions for hegemony and willingness
to accommodate China's "peaceful rise" rather than try to
encircle and contain it by building a web of alliances with
other countries in Asia and the Middle East.
From the perspective of Beijing, the tumult across the
Middle East is beginning to look like a western-backed exercise
in toppling governments and trying to replace them with new
regimes that are more pro-western in outlook and give
preferential access to energy supplies to western firms.
The initial uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt and fears of
unrest in the Gulf monarchies appeared to be a major setback for
U.S. and European interests in the region, which had been
closely aligned with the status quo.
But senior policymakers in Washington, London and Paris have
since embraced a strategy of selectively encouraging protests
and regime change to remove enemies (Libya, Syria), while
continuing to offer diplomatic support for crackdowns by
incumbents in allied states (Bahrain).
It remains unclear whether the new governments that
eventually emerge in Egypt, Tunisia, Syria, Libya and Yemen will
be reliable western allies.
But when the West's ambition for regime change is coupled
with U.S. alliances in the region (Bahrain, Qatar, Saudi Arabia,
Kuwait, United Arab Emirates and Oman) and with its military
presence in Iraq, the United States and its EU allies appear to
be attempting to dominate a region accounting for one-third of
global oil production and an even higher share of reserves.
Senior policymakers in Beijing may feel that toppling yet
another government in Iran and replacing it with one more
friendly towards the United States and the EU is not in China's
RETURN OF "MR NYET"
For decades, USSR Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko was given
the nickname Mr Nyet ("Mr No") for his willingness to use
Russia's Security Council veto. China, by contrast, has tended
to play a much lower profile and has often been unwilling to use
its veto, at least on its own. But there have recently been
signs of greater assertiveness.
The temptation of western governments and liberal
interventionists to stretch the terms of Security Council
resolutions for their own ends has finally drawn a response.
Following the Security Council's authorisation of "all
necessary means" in the first Gulf War, other Council members
tightened the authorisation in the second Gulf War resolution to
include what many thought was a requirement for a second vote
before military action was taken.
When the United States, Britain and their allies ignored
that, other Council members responded by ensuring the resolution
on Libya specifically excluded the insertion of ground forces.
When that too was circumvented by NATO, Russia and China
concluded the only safe thing to do with the resolution on Syria
was to veto it and prevent the United Nations from being used to
provide cover for regime change.
"For China, in effect, Syria has become a firewall," wrote
Evan Osnos in an article on "What does China see in Syria?" in
the Feb. 28 edition of the New Yorker magazine.
Russia and China have successfully kept the United Nations
out of both Syria and Iran recently, leaving the United States
and EU to pursue a patchwork of unilateral sanctions
ID:nL6E8C5123]. The problem is that many of those sanctions
assume China will fall into line with their objectives, for
example by demanding cripplingly large discounts for Iranian
To what degree China is willing to comply with
extraterritorial U.S. legislation aiming to undermine the
government of a key supplier remains extremely unclear. No
country enjoys being subject to extraterritorial policymaking.
China's foreign ministry attacked the U.S. decision to
impose sanctions on Zhuhai Zhenrong for supplying Iran with
refined oil products.
"The U.S. attempt to internationalize its unilateral
sanctions against Iran and impose sanctions on a relevant
Chinese company based on its domestic law is totally unjustified
and runs counter to the content and spirit of Security Council
resolutions concerning the Iranian nuclear issue," the foreign
ministry said in a statement on its website.
China has more than one reason for caution, given its
government has not endorsed the aims of sanctions policy and has
deliberately prevented the United States and the EU from taking
further action via the United Nations.
During a recent trip to the Middle East, China's Premier Wen
Jiabao said China was adamant in opposing any Iranian
development of nuclear weapons. But he warned, "I also want to
clearly point out that China's oil trade with Iran is normal
trade activity" and "legitimate trade should be protected".
If sanctions are to be successful in forcing Iran to give up
its nuclear ambitions as advocates hope, they will need the
quiet support of China, or at least the country's willingness
not to deliberately obstruct them. For the time being, that
willingness remains in question.
(editing by Jane Baird)