Iran’s Nuclear Act and U.S.-China Relations: The View from Beijing

Publication: China Brief Volume: 7 Issue: 23

Tehran is again on the agenda of the U.S-China security relationship since the release of the recent National Intelligence Estimate (NIE), which concluded that Iran had “halted,” among other things, engaging in the development of nuclear weapons since 2003. President George W. Bush and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, however, warned against removing the crosshair on Iran, insisting that Iran continues to be “very dangerous,” a major “threat” and its nuclear program can still potentially be used for hostile purposes. Iran, therefore, has not escaped the eye of U.S. security storm. The United States, European Union (EU) and the UN will continue to mull over a solution for Iran—with or without Russia or China. China’s ambassador to the United States, Wang Guangya, commented, “I think the [UN] council members will have to consider that [NIE], because I think we all start from the presumption that now things have changed” (Reuters, December 4). Iran, therefore, will continue to be one of the major issues or opportunities for conflict or engagement between the United States and China.

Three Common Interests

The United States and China do not often see eye-to-eye on Iran, but have increasingly cooperated on the Iranian issue in recent years. Iran was a major thorn in U.S.-China relations in the early 1990s when the United States criticized China’s sale of chemicals that could be used for developing chemical weapons in Iran, and China’s “technological cooperation” with Iran on its civilian use of nuclear technology. China stopped those programs with Iran in the mid-to-late 1990s. Since then China has become a major part of the international non-proliferation regime and joined almost all the non-proliferation treaties, and additionally has moved closer in step with the international community, including the United States, on the Iranian nuclear issue. There has been notable progress in consultation and cooperation, due to the fact that the two countries were able to develop a common understanding and shared interests over the Iranian nuclear issue. Since 1998, China has started to work with other countries such as the UK, France, Russia, and the United States, as well as the UN Security Council on the Indian and Pakistani nuclear tests. Moreover, the process of the Six-Party Talks on the North Korean nuclear issue brought the United States and China to the table with a common purpose: prevent the escalation of tension and strengthen the regional non-proliferation regime. Iran, in addition to North Korea, is one of the major areas/issues for U.S.-China international consultation and cooperation, working as “stakeholders” in maintaining international and regional peace and security since the United States and China share three converging interests in the Iranian nuclear issue.

The first is stability in the Middle East—including the Persian Gulf. China and the United States share a common interest in Middle East stability, since the two countries are the biggest consumers of Middle East oil. The majority of oil imports by the United States and China come from the region; with China importing nearly 60% of its overseas oil imports from the Gulf. In order to ensure stable and reasonable energy supply abroad, especially from the Middle East, is a realistic and indispensable party to any national economic and strategic security for the two countries now and in the future. Thus, the peace and stability of Iran and other parts of the Middle East are a common economic, security, and strategic interests of the United States and China.

Second, non-proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) is already an established common interest of both the United States and China. The spread of nuclear weapons is a long-term threat to the international community. The more states or non-state actors possess nuclear weapons, the higher the possibility that some nation, regime, non-state actor or politician may wave the nuclear card and heighten existential risks in unstable conflict situations.

Third, terrorism remains a major threat to the United States, China and other countries. The Middle East region, and the bordering countries such as Afghanistan, Pakistan, and even Central Asia, are the major source of terrorist forces threatening the United States and China. Separatist forces using car bombs in China’s Xinjiang and bordered areas of Central and Western Asia, is a major national security threat, second only to Taiwan’s move towards de jure independence. The connection and support to Xinjiang’s separatist forces come mainly from Central and Western Asia.

These are the major common views and interests between the United States and China over Iranian issues, and they have been the foundation of U.S.-China consultation and cooperation in recent years. Additionally, this foundation should serve as the building blocks for the United States and China to continue to engage and cooperate over issues related to Iran and the Middle East. Notwithstanding, China and the United States seem to have more differences than a consensus over their views and policies toward Iran, especially concerning the nuclear issue.

Four Divergences

The first issue concerns the gap in U.S. and Chinese “threat” perceptions. The Chinese and Americans have widely differing perceptions about the threat or “potential threat” posed by Iran, including possible Iranian nuclear weapons. To Americans—Republicans and Democrats alike—Iran and its nuclear weapons pose a very serious threat to peace and stability in the Middle East, because of its threat to Israel and for American comprehensive interests: oil, security, strategic, political in the region, and to the American homeland. To Chinese government and military leaders, and to the public, Iran—even a nuclear Iran—does not pose any direct or real existential threat to China. Iran, in the eyes of the Chinese government, is not “evil” or even a bad country or regime, and unlikely to inflict harm on Chinese interests.

The second issue concerns the U.S. “intelligence” fumbles. Largely as the result of the U.S. mishandling of the Iraq war, the Chinese government has serious reservations about American statements and intelligence about Iran—and the new NIE report reinforces such perceptions that U.S. intelligence is not reliable. The Chinese believe that there are differences between IAEA investigations, assessments and conclusions, and American suspicion about the Iranian nuclear program, as there were differences between the United Nations’ inspection team about its investigation about Iraq’s nuclear weapons’ program and U.S. claims before the Iraq War. Since the Chinese and Americans always have differences about the facts of the Iranian nuclear program and the Iranian threat, the two governments will logically have disagreements on policies and timetable to deal with the contending “reality.”

The third issue concerns historical relations—or a lack thereof between the United States and Iran. The Chinese see that the United States has not had positive relations with Iran for many decades, so whatever the United States or the international community do to Iran will not come at the expense of the United States. In other words, the United States does not need to be too cautious in dealing with Iran—including its nuclear program. On the other hand, China has had a good and mutually beneficial relationship with Iran for decades. To the Chinese understanding and worldview, Iran is an important nation in the Middle East, a great civilization, rich history and influence in the contemporary world. Iran is a positive country to many Chinese, all in addition to the fact that Iran has been a major source of Chinese foreign oil supply.

The Chinese government can afford to give up some of its interests with Iran, but the big question is “why?” Why should China sacrifice and bare the cost of deteriorating relations with Iran? Why is it necessary? Is it a fact that Iran is a serious threat to the region or to the world that China must act with others against such a threat? What are China’s incentives when it sacrifices its relations with Iran? A single statement that since China needs to be a “stakeholder,” so therefore it has to work together with the United States or the “international community” each time they demand, to China is not sufficient.

Lastly concerns China’s identity issue. The Chinese leaders and people still seriously believe that China is a developing country—albeit the biggest and fastest growing one in the developing world. Therefore, the Chinese consider it a moral problem for China when it comes to how it should position itself on international issues. In the Chinese worldview, almost all the conflicting issues today are issues between the two worlds: North Korea, Iraq, Iran, Sudan, Myanmar and others. So it is difficult for the Chinese leaders to explain to their people why whenever there is a conflicting issue between developed countries led by the United States—and a developing country, China sides with the developed world and “bully” the smaller and poorer country.

A Six-Party Framework for Iran

China would like the see “Six-Party Talks” model used on the Iranian nuclear issue. Although the six-party framework for the North Korean nuclear issue is not a perfect one and even the Chinese are not too confident on the final destination of the process to resolve the North Koran nuclear problem in the future. The Chinese, however, do believe that the six-party talks is the best approach available to deal with the problem peacefully, and insist it should be given a chance, even though it might last for years. On the Iranian nuclear issue, the Chinese believe in another “six-party” process: the European Union (the UK, France, Germany), the U.S., Russia, China, the UN, and Iran on the Iranian nuclear issue, may be successful in preventing Iran from developing nuclear weapons. Just as it can get approval now the UN inspection for more than ten years prevented Iraq from actually having nuclear weapons after the 1991 Gulf War.

China may go along with some sanctions on Iran, but that will only be when Iran walks away and refuses to come back to the negotiation table of the six-party talks, or actually tests nuclear weapons. Before that, every opportunity that the issue can be resolved peacefully, and nuclear weapons can be prevented in Iran should be seized.

That is the reason why the Chinese leaders and the Foreign Ministry continue to state that China still hopes to resolve the disputes on the Iranian nuclear issue comprehensively “through continuing diplomatic negotiation,” even after the release of the NIE report on Iran. China indicates it would continue to hope that Iran implements those UN resolutions, cooperates with IAEA, and continues to engage with the EU on the issue. China will continue to work with all the other parties, including the United States and Iran, to try to resolve the nuclear issue peacefully. If the peace process fails, then China will be ready for other options, including more comprehensive and serious UN sanctions against Iran. Nevertheless, before forfeiting to the “doomsday scenario,” if there is a chance then no efforts should be spared to prevent it through dialogue, negotiation and engagement.