Beijing Steers “Tricky Path” With Iran

With Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meeting with U.S. President Barack Obama in Washington on Monday and warning of a shrinking window for diplomacy with Iran over its nuclear program, Princeton University’s Joel Wuthnow asks how long China will wait before using its own influence to pressure Tehran. From The Diplomat:

This possibility depends on how likely the Chinese leadership views an Israeli strike in the absence of tougher international diplomacy. It’s difficult to know what China’s top leaders believe at the moment, but attitudes among key Chinese strategists appear to be mixed. On one hand, strategists are aware of the difficulties of a successful Israeli strike, including the problem of hardened, diffuse targets, as well as the likelihood of Iranian retaliation. There’s also a conviction among many strategists that Washington will be able and willing to restrain its ally.

Nevertheless, some analysts aren’t so sure. Tang Zhichao, a scholar at the influential Chinese Institute for Contemporary International Relations, writes that, “Israel, facing a grace threat and leery about the chances of negotiations as well as sanctions, could be tempted to use unilateral force to resolve the issue.” Hua Liming, a retired Chinese envoy to Tehran, argues that Israel’s “military strike preparations,” including talks with Riyadh about the use of Saudi airspace, seem to be “realistic.” Another scholar who I talked with in Beijing last month said that Israel was “very, very serious,” even if the U.S. might be able to prevent the former from acting.

Some doubts about Israel’s intentions will of course remain. The point, though, is that a heightened risk, in and of itself, may be sufficient to persuade China’s leaders to think twice. President Hu Jintao, and his top foreign affairs deputy, Dai Bingguo, don’t have to be convinced that Israel will attack; rather, they only have to have serious doubts that it will back down. Given the stakes, avoiding even a modest risk of instability may be worth the costs Beijing would have to pay to do so.

A January visit to the Persian Gulf by Premier Wen Jiabao, during which he struck deals with a number of countries in the region, indicated that China may have already decided to take a firmer stance with Iran. Today, Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi reiterated Beijing’s opposition to an Iranian nuclear weapons program. From Reuters:

“We are opposed to any country in the Middle East, including Iran, developing and possessing nuclear weapons,” Yang said, adding that Iran nonetheless has the right to pursue nuclear activities for peaceful purposes. “We oppose unilateral sanctions,” he added.

Yang’s comments laid bare the tricky path Beijing is trying to steer between pressure from Washington and its allies, and rival expectations from Iran, which looks to China as a sympathetic power and a big oil customer.

China has repeatedly urged a negotiated solution to the dispute over Tehran’s atomic activities, which Western governments say appear aimed at mastering the means to make nuclear weapons. Tehran says those activities are peaceful.