UN sanctions on Iran for its nuclear program: Why did China go along?

The answer may lie in Beijing's careful calculation to keep Iranian oil flowing to the Chinese economy. Too-tough sanctions might compel Iran to shut down its oil exports. But no sanctions might force Israel to attack Iran and disrupt Middle East oil supplies.

Xinhua/Shen Hong/Newscom
Security Council huddle (left to right): British Ambassador to the United Nations Mark Lyall Grant, Chinese permanent representative to the UN Li Baodong, German Ambassador to the UN Peter Wittig, Russian Ambassador to the UN Vitaly Churkin, U.S. Ambassador to the UN Susan Rice, and French Ambassador to the UN Gerard Araud talk at the UN headquarters, June 9, 2010, the day before the Security Council voted on a resolution that would impose sanctions on Iran.

A Chinese puzzle lies behind Wednesday’s vote in the UN Security Council that imposes new sanctions on Iran:

Why would Beijing help punish Iran for only appearing to make an atomic bomb but not also punish North Korea for having already exploded one?

Obviously, China is not too worried about nuclear proliferation, otherwise it would have used its considerable economic clout over North Korea to stop it from making a bomb (or two) over the past two decades. And if Beijing really wanted to prevent a nuclear arms race in the Middle East, it would have gone along with even tougher sanctions against Iran proposed by the West.

But it didn’t. And there the guessing game starts about China’s real motives in being slightly tough on Iran but not so on North Korea. (Indeed, China does not even acknowledge hard evidence that the North sunk a South Korean warship in March, killing 46 sailors.)

The answer to this puzzling contradiction in Beijing’s behavior may lie in a famous quote from the late Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping: “To be rich is glorious.”

Many of China’s actions since it embraced capitalism in 1979 have been focused on an almost-imperialistic quest for resources abroad to feed its market economy and to lift itself up from poverty.

Today, Iran supplies about 11 percent of China’s imported oil. North Korea, on the other hand, only receives oil from China – perhaps for free or subsidized – to keep its economy afloat. And China prefers the status quo on the Korean peninsula, all the better to maintain business with South Korea and Japan.

If Iran were to unilaterally cut off oil exports in response to really tough sanctions, or if Israel were to attack Iranian nuclear facilities and ignite a regional war, China’s steady economic progress would suffer.

Israel has in fact recently advised China of the implications of an air attack on Iran’s nuclear plants, a diplomatic move that helped win China’s vote at the UN.

China can also extract benefits from the West by going along with the mild sanctions. The US, for instance, has so far avoided designating China as a currency-rate manipulator in order to win over Beijing and create a big-power front against Iran.

Just how far the UN will eventually go in punishing Iran depends in large part on China’s economic needs – as well as the credibility of Israel’s threat to prevent Iran from making a bomb.

For US diplomats who have been able to ratchet up ever-tougher sanctions on Iran since 2006, this is a delicate and puzzling game of trying to figure out China’s economic interests.

The game is far from over as Iran may be a year or more away from making enough high-grade uranium. Meanwhile, the high intrigue goes on.

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