The View from China
by ROBERT DREYFUSS in Beijing
02 Dec 2009 09:06
Zhang Min, the director-general for North America at the Chinese People's Institute of Foreign Affairs, China's leading think tank founded in 1949 by Zhou Enlai, says that the world has plenty of time to deal with Iran. He makes it clear that Washington isn't likely to get support from Beijing if the current round of talks falter and the United States seeks to rally world powers for what Secretary of State Hillary Clinton calls "crippling sanctions."
"The important word is patience," Zhang says. "Not sanctions." Echoing the view of many analysts that the "political clock" in Iran is moving faster than the "nuclear clock" (i.e., that Iran's politics will change before it is able to develop a nuclear weapon), Zhang says that the P5 + 1, including China and the United States, must not expect quick results from the talks with Iran. "We must approach Iran with patience. It is not just a question of months, but perhaps of years. And perhaps, in two or three years, the leaders of Iran will change," he says.
During the ten-day visit to China, during which I interviewed several Chinese officials and experts, it was evident that Beijing views its relationship with Tehran as a strategic one, and it is not anxious to put it at risk by forcing a showdown over Iran's nuclear program. About fifteen percent of China's oil imports come from Iran, and China's fast-growing economy will be increasingly dependent on oil from Iran and the Persian Gulf for many decades to come. Overwhelmingly concerned about economic growth and its own domestic political stability, China is worried that instability in the Persian Gulf and Central Asia, including Iran and Afghanistan, could threaten China's energy lifeline, undermining China's surging industrial expansion.
In Shanghai, I interviewed Yang Jiemian, president of the prestigious Shanghai Institutes for International Studies (SIIS), whose brother, Yang Jiechi, is China's minister of foreign affairs. Yang made it clear that, despite his pleas during his recent visit to Beijing, Obama isn't likely to get much support from China over confrontation and sanctions against Iran if the nuclear talks don't move quickly. "China and the United States have similar views on some issues regarding Iran, and we have some differences," he says. He points out that China has supported limited, targeted sanctions against Iran at the UN Security Council in recent years, and he notes that China and the US both support the strengthening of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. "We will work together to persuade Iran to become part of the mainstream of the world community," he says. "But China supports Iran's right to the peaceful use of nuclear energy, and we oppose a military solution to the problem." Adds a colleague, "Most of us believe that Iran's nuclear program is for peaceful uses."
In November, Obama reportedly dispatched two White House officials, Dennis Ross and Jeffrey Bader, to Beijing in an attempt to scare China into cooperating with the United States on Iran. The two officials warned that if rapid progress is not made on getting Iran to halt its nuclear enrichment, the Israeli air force is likely to attack Iran, an act that would destabilize the region, raise oil prices, and jeopardize China's energy supplies. But China seems unmoved. Although Beijing voted along with the United States in support of a resolution at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) that was highly critical of Iran, there is no indication that China is considering tough sanctions. On November 30, Qin Gang, spokesman for the Chinese foreign ministry, declared that sanctions "are not the goal" of UN pressure on Iran. "We should properly resolve this issue through dialogue," he said. "All parties should step up diplomatic efforts."
Xu Lingen, a retired general who is now a Middle East specialist and senior adviser at the Chinese Institute for International Strategic Studies, told me, "The problems of the Middle East cannot be solved by military force, only by peaceful means, and for that reason we opposed the war waged by the United States in Iraq and we are also opposed to a potential war waged against Iran."
General Xu, like several other Chinese officials I spoke to, emphasized that China is intent on playing a greater role in the region. "There has been more attention to the Middle East than before by China," he says. "China is more actively engaged in Middle East affairs. Nearly one-third of our energy imports come from the Middle East. We hope to have stability there." China, he noted, has stepped up its involvement in international peacekeeping forces through the UN, including in south Lebanon.
Zheng Zeguang, the director general of the Chinese foreign ministry's section on North America, echoed General Xu's comments, in an interview in a conference room at the foreign ministry. "The Middle East has become more and more important," he told me. "Years ago, it seemed so far away. But now, partly because of oil, it is in China's interest to see a stable, peaceful Middle East, from Iran and Iraq to Israel and Palestine." For years, he says, China has urged the United States and Iran to institute direct talks. "The differences between the United States and Iran should be resolved through negotiations. Both sides should understand what is behind the other's concern. The most important thing is that Iran not be allowed to develop nuclear weapons. In bilateral discussions between China and Iran, we have urged Iran not to pursue a weapon."
Recently, China has tried to become more engaged diplomatically in the region, although so far the United States has not supported that effort, viewing China's role with some suspicion. At the foreign ministry, Zheng told me that for nearly a decade China has sought to participate in the Middle East "quartet," the four-party group that includes the United States, Russia, the European Union, and the UN that is involved in Arab-Israeli peace talks.
"Unfortunately, China is not part of the Quartet," says Zheng. "Personally, I do not understand why China is not included." But a retired Chinese diplomat with wide experience in the Middle East suggests that United States is reluctant to see China play a greater role in the region. Some U.S. analysts, such as Kenneth Pollack of the Brookings Institution, have called on the United States to bring China into the Middle East quartet, because China is likely to play a constructive role.
In particular, Zheng told me, China can contribute because it is one of the few countries that has close ties to both Israel and Iran. "In our view, it is wise for China to maintain good relations with Israel and Iran, as we can counsel Israel and Iran and help them to reduce their tensions," he says. "We have no other interest other than peace and stability between Israel and Iran."
But, in discussions with Chinese officials and experts, it is clear that in China there is a nagging concern that the vast U.S. presence in the Persian Gulf, Iraq, and Afghanistan is part of an effort by the United States and NATO to block China in the region and to retard China's economic expansion. "If you ask different people in China, you will get different answers," says Yang Jiemian of SIIS. "Personally, I'm concerned about the possibility that these things could be part of a plan to 'contain' China." But, he adds, China's view is to work cooperatively with all countries in the region, and with the United States, to deal with what he calls a critical transition that the countries of central Asia and the Middle East need to make.
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