Having It Both Ways: Iran and the gap between theory and practice in Chinese foreign policy
AT FIRST blush, it looks like a beautiful marriage of ideological consistency and practical benefit. With its “principled” objection to the sanctions imposed by America and Europe because of Iran’s assumed nuclear ambitions, China remains true to its long-held opposition to sanctions as a tool of foreign policy. More broadly, it can continue to harp on about its devotion to the principle of “non-interference” in other countries’ affairs. Meanwhile, as Europe’s ban on imports of Iranian oil takes effect, China, which accounts for over one-fifth of Iran’s oil exports, can expect chunky discounts on the oil it continues to buy.
Small wonder then that Tim Geithner, America’s treasury secretary, visiting Beijing this month to seek China’s help in curbing Iranian oil exports, received a polite brush-off. “We oppose pressuring or international sanctions, because these pressures and sanctions are not helpful,” read a deputy foreign minister from page one of his diplomatic manual. A few days later China’s hauteur turned to indignation when America announced sanctions on a Chinese company, Zhuhai Zhenrong, for its dealings with Iran, even though the sanctions were largely symbolic.
China’s stance over Iran, however, is far from clear-cut. It finds itself in a pivotal but acutely uncomfortable position. The simplistic old platitudes in which its foreign policy is couched cannot do justice to the complexity of the calculations it has to make. Most of its foreign-policy principles, says Minxin Pei of Claremont McKenna College in California, are “either obsolete or under pressure”, and Iran is an example of their irrelevance.
They do seem nevertheless to provide intellectual cover for a self-interested policy. (That is the mark of what diplomats call “good principles”.) “Energy security” has long been a priority for Chinese diplomacy. It has underpinned its friendships with other regimes excoriated in the West: pre-division Sudan, for example, or Myanmar’s junta before it donned civilian clothing and gave charm a chance. In Iran, China has longstanding commercial relationships and an important—and cheap—energy supplier. Naturally it wants to avoid antagonising a reliable old friend.
Moreover, China has more reasons than usual to be suspicious of America’s intentions. Viewed from Beijing, the “pivot” towards Asia announced by Barack Obama in November, as he unveiled plans for American marines to establish a permanent presence in northern Australia, was an affront. It was taken as a message to the Asia-Pacific region that America now saw China’s rapid economic and military advance as the main global strategic threat to its interests, and as a threat that it was determined to counter. That many of China’s neighbours welcomed the pivot only made things worse,
It is in this context that the more nationalistic sections of the official Chinese press are fuming about American pressure on Iran. Global Times, a Beijing newspaper (“the Fox News of the Chinese media”, in Mr Pei’s phrase), has argued that this pressure has led increasing numbers of people in both China and Russia to advocate an alliance between the two countries, directed at America. That seems far-fetched—after all, Russia is probably on better terms with both India and Vietnam, traditional Chinese rivals, than it is with China itself. But, at the very least, China would want to maintain a common anti-sanctions front with Russia on the United Nations Security Council—ensuring that the American and European embargoes are not supplemented by UN sanctions