BEIJING (Reuters) - Beijing said this week that stepping up sanctions was not an effective way to persuade Iran to halt its nuclear program, even as China joined other big powers to demand a “serious response” from Tehran.
Below are some questions and answers about why China is so ambivalent about international pressure on Iran.
China has long said that it sticks to a doctrine of “non interference” in the affairs of other nations, in part because it does not want the United States or Europe criticizing its behavior or policies.
It is also wary of signing up to multi-lateral efforts to pressure countries, for similar reasons, except in cases like North Korea, which is a pressing security concern close to home.
In fact, China does meddle in domestic politics abroad, but most often when it involves its long-standing fight to build diplomatic ties with countries that recognize the self-ruled island of Taiwan, claimed by Beijing as its own.
China is a permanent member of the Security Council, so it has a veto on any resolution to censure Iran or ratchet up sanctions. While Beijing often abstains from votes on decisions it disapproves of, it is also willing to use its veto.
If Beijing threatens to block a resolution, Western nations that want to increase pressure on Tehran through sanctions or other methods might be forced to act unsupported by the authority of the United Nations.
Alternatively, they would have to wait for something that Beijing considers a more severe provocation.
Growing energy ties bind China, the world’s No. 2 crude oil consumer, and Iran, which holds the world’s second-largest crude oil reserves and desperately needs investment to develop them.
Tehran has turned to Asian firms for energy investment, as Western firms succumb to political pressure, and Iranian oil made up nearly 12 percent of China’s crude imports last year.
Chinese state companies are also selling gasoline to Iran, which despite its huge crude reserves lacks the refining capacity to meet domestic fuel demand. They stepped into a vacuum left by sellers who halted supplies in anticipation of new sanctions.
Both countries also resent Western criticism of their human rights records, which they condemn as unjustified, unfounded and politically motivated.
WHY WAS CHINA PREPARED TO BACK SANCTIONS ON NORTH KOREA? North Korea is on China’s border and has hovered at the brink of economic collapse for over a decade now. Any disintegration of the regime could spill instability into China.
In contrast, Iran is an important trade partner several thousand kilometers away, with a damaged but functioning economy.
In addition, Pyongyang has twice tested a nuclear device and may have extracted enough plutonium for six to eight bombs.
Tehran says its nuclear program is for peaceful power generation purposes only. And even if Iran is lying, its scientists are still several steps away from a nuclear weapon.
China’s leaders will probably bide their time to see how Iran responds to pressure, and whether more evidence is laid out that would point to nuclear weapons plans. They might ultimately be willing to intervene to prevent Iran developing a nuclear weapon because of fears about a Middle East arms race or worries about global proliferation. But even if Beijing does sign up to more stringent action it could be weeks or months from now.
Reporting by Emma Graham-Harrison; Editing by Jan Dahinten