But this effort has yielded few results and merely serves to strengthen China’s strategic hand. The longer China holds out, the better treatment it gets from the West, which is hoping for sanctions that will likely do little to resolve the nuclear impasse anyway.
Iran is China’s third-largest oil supplier and home to expanding Chinese energy and commercial enterprises. China and Iran also share a strong resentment of perceived American meddling in their domestic politics. The bond with Tehran helps counterbalance American interests in a region that some strategists in China consider part of its “grand periphery.”
Beijing has also led a charm offensive with Muslim countries since the Xinjiang riots in July 2009, partly in response to strong condemnations by top Iranian clerics of China’s administration of the restive western province.
Unlike the US and Europe, Beijing does not seem to see an urgent need to deal with the Iran nuclear issue. Trying to pressure Beijing by sharing Western intelligence on Iran is unlikely to have much effect.
Building an effective international coalition of countries – including Arab Gulf countries and those with Security Council membership – is a far better way to shape China’s Iran calculus.
Although Beijing would probably prefer to avoid an arms race in the Middle East, most Chinese analysts are unconvinced that Iran will be able to enrich uranium to weapons-grade quality anytime soon, or to weaponize it. Consider the fact that Chinese analysts questioned whether Pyongyang could make a nuclear bomb right up until North Korea’s first nuclear test in 2006.
Then there is the fact that Beijing does not appear to be afraid of an imminent Israeli airstrike on Iranian nuclear installations. Most Chinese analysts believe the US has both the motivation and strength to restrain its ally.
Finally, Beijing argues that sanctions on Iran are unlikely to work, and instead will backfire by inducing resistance instead of compliance. Beijing has indicated that it suspects that the West’s fixation on sanctions is part of a broader plan to promote a change of government in Tehran – regime change that China is loath to see anywhere.
Yet China will pay a high political cost if it is perceived internationally as having blocked new sanctions. Despite a mixed record, Beijing portrays itself as a committed supporter of international nonproliferation efforts. Growing used to the respect and self-esteem that come with being a world power, China does not want to appear an outlier as important global nuclear cooperation summits draw near.
Real costs to China’s relationships with its most important energy providers in the Gulf would also help to change Beijing’s calculations.
But Beijing has been receiving more carrots than sticks from these countries including Saudi Arabia, its top oil supplier, which fears the strategic implications of a nuclear Iran. Israel sent a high-level delegation to Beijing last month to try to persuade China to support sanctions.
Iranian officials, for their part, have aggressively pursued a strategy of binding China into a tighter energy relationship by offering incentives such as tax cuts to woo Chinese energy companies. Meanwhile, the US has encouraged key Arab states to boost oil exports to China, attempting to decrease its reliance on Iranian oil. So far, China has accepted US-brokered deals to boost oil exports from the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait.
Ultimately, if China finds itself facing unanimous support for sanctions from other permanent UN Security Council members, it will not use its veto but rather will work to water down the resolution though a delay-and-weaken strategy that maximizes concessions from both Iran and the West.
Energy sanctions are already off the table. And Beijing is likely to reject targeted sanctions on several Iranian Revolutionary Guard affiliates with whom Chinese entities do significant business.
In the end, the West is spending valuable political capital to get Beijing to do very little, a questionable investment given the long odds against sanctions achieving their aim in Iran anyway.
With several nonpermanent members of the Security Council starting to voice reluctance to support sanctions, including Brazil and Turkey, Western efforts would be better spent gathering the widest international consensus possible – effectively boxing in China before making a beeline to Beijing.