BEIJING (Reuters) - Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Zhai Jun visited Iran for talks, the Chinese Foreign Ministry said, during growing tensions over Tehran’s threat to choke off Middle Eastern oil shipments in retaliation against proposed Western sanctions.
In keeping with Beijing’s public sensitivity over Iran — a major oil supplier to China — the ministry statement gave only opaque clues about what Zhai and his hosts discussed during his two-day visit that ended on Thursday.
“Both sides exchanged views on Sino-Iranian relations and regional issues,” said the brief announcement on the Chinese Foreign Ministry’s website (www.mfa.gov.cn) dated Thursday.
Zhai met Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi and other officials, the announcement said.
The senior Chinese diplomat’s visit came after Tehran threatened to retaliate against proposed Western sanctions by choking off oil flows through the Strait of Hormuz, a crucial passage for Middle Eastern suppliers.
Tehran’s threat followed the European Union’s decision to tighten sanctions on Iran over its nuclear programme, as well as moves by the United States to tighten unilateral sanctions.
“China hopes that peace and stability can be maintained in the strait,” the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei told a briefing on Thursday in answer to a question about escalating tensions that have pushed up oil prices.
China has driven global oil demand growth for a decade and has increasingly relied on shipments from the Middle East. 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 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.
Reporting by Chris Buckley; Editing by Ron Popeski