When he attends the Olympics this summer in Beijing, President Bush will have two scorecards: One to follow athletes and one to check on China's global actions. Mr. Bush plans to ask Chinese leaders about their hand in three trouble spots: Darfur, Burma, and Iran. Of the three, Iran is the most critical.
That's because China has become the largest trading partner with Iran during the past year (not counting the United Arab Emirates, which serve as transit traders for Iran). And China is putting more than $2 billion into Iran's oil fields. All this Chinese trade and investment gives an unsettling boost to the Islamic Republic in its drive to build a capability for nuclear weapons and to dominate the Middle East. It also helps Iran in supporting terrorist groups, such as the Taliban in Afghanistan and Hizbullah in Lebanon.
China's mercantile rush into Iran isn't because it is more competitive but because Europe and many countries have been pulling back their economic ties with Iran to be in line with a growing global consensus on squeezing Iran with sanctions.
To its credit, China has tried in a minimal way to be a global stakeholder in the United Nations effort to end Iran's nuclear threat. In the past two years, it has voted in favor of Security Council measures that have imposed limited but increasingly stricter sanctions on Iran, such as the latest one March 3 that bars civilian goods that could have a military use.
But these measures mainly serve as a strong signal of world censure to Iran and are weak in pinching Iran's oil-rich economy and forcing an end to the regime's efforts to make weapons-grade uranium.
Sanctions with more bite are coming from outside of the UN, with the United States trying to enlist Europe, Russia, and Arab states to cut off financing, trade, and oil investments. Even many US states are ensuring that their pension plans aren't invested in Iran.
And although he's a lame duck and knows a Democrat may succeed him, Bush enjoys bipartisan support in Congress for his global leadership in isolating Iran. For the next president, Iran's nuclear program and its terrorist support will remain a top foreign-policy concern. The US has time to line up more sanction supporters. Iran can't produce enough weapons-grade uranium until at least 2010.
Having China draw down economic ties with Iran might further help moderates within Tehran's fractured leadership to gain some sway over Iran's intransigent policy. China itself has felt pressure from global activists for its support of Sudan and that regime's heavy hand in Darfur. Steven Spielberg's decision to withdraw as an artistic adviser to the Olympics may have helped push China to nudge Sudan to change it actions in Darfur.
The US and other big powers offered to talk with Iran on a range of issues and to help it build nuclear power plants (with safeguards) – if Iran simply suspends its enrichment. Iran's clerical leaders have refused that offer several times, perhaps because of internal power struggles and worries about popular unrest over an increasingly troubled economy.
Bush can bring home a gold medal from Beijing if he persuades China now to fully join the sanctions bandwagon.