BEIJING (Reuters) - China urged peace and stability on Thursday after Tehran threatened to punish proposed Western sanctions by choking off oil flows through the Strait of Hormuz, but declined to make any other comment about the crisis.
The foreign ministry’s terse, one sentence public response to Tehran’s threats over the world’s most important oil route reflects China’s sensitivities about its close business links with Iran.
“China hopes that peace and stability can be maintained in the strait,” ministry spokesman Hong Lei told a briefing in answer to a question about escalating tensions that have pushed up oil prices.
He did not answer a question about whether China had had any contact with Tehran or other governments about the threat.
China’s official Xinhua news agency said in a commentary speculation about war with Iran over the past few years had ended up simply amounting to “crying wolf.”
“To avoid the real arrival of the wolf, all sides should show greater sincerity and flexibility,” it wrote.
China has long defended its oil and trade ties with Iran as legitimate, and criticized unilateral sanctions that could stymie those ties.
Iran’s threat to block crude shipments through the Strait of Hormuz, a crucial passage for Middle Eastern suppliers, followed the European Union’s decision to tighten sanctions on Iran over its nuclear program, as well as accompanying moves by the United States to tighten unilateral sanctions.
China has driven global oil demand growth for a decade and has increasingly relied on shipments from the Middle East, where Iran and rival Saudi Arabia compete for the market. China bought 547,000 barrels per day of crude from Iran through to October this year, up from 426,000 barrels per day for all of 2010.
Only Saudi Arabia and Angola sell more than Iran to China.
International tensions with Iran have increased since a report by the United Nation’s International Atomic Energy Agency in November concluded Tehran appears to have worked on designing a nuclear weapon and may still be pursuing research to that end.
Iran denies this and says it is developing nuclear energy for peaceful purposes.
Iran has expanded its nuclear activities despite four rounds of U.N. sanctions since 2006 over its refusal to suspend uranium enrichment and give access to U.N. nuclear inspectors.
As a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council, China has the power to veto resolutions mandating such sanctions. But Beijing has instead voted for them, while working to ensure its oil and trade ties are not threatened.
China, however, has also criticized the United States and European Union for imposing their own separate sanctions on Iran, and said they should not take steps reaching beyond the U.N. resolutions.
Reporting by Chris Buckley; Writing by Ben Blanchard; Editing by Paul Tait