Bringing China Around

Our guest bloggers are Winny Chen, Policy Analyst and Manage for China Studies, and Megan Adams, an intern with the National Security and International Policy team at the Center for American Progress.

US-PESIDENT-OBAMIran was on the top of the agenda when Presidents Barack Obama and Hu Jintao met on the sidelines of this week’s nuclear summit in Washington, but what was agreed upon in that conversation depended on whom you asked.

National Security Council Senior Director for Asian Affairs Jeff Bader stated in a briefing Tuesday, “The two presidents agreed the two delegations should work together on sanctions [on Iran].” However, China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Jiang Yu had a different take: “China has always believed that sanctions and pressure cannot fundamentally resolve the issue, and dialogue and negotiation are the best ways.” Chinese officials have also continued to press for a diplomatic solution. So what should we expect to happen next?

A look at China’s past positions could shed some light. China’s foot-dragging on sanctioning Iran isn’t new. Its interests in the Middle East have given it reason to shield Iran from sanctions in the U.N. Security Council. For one, China is concerned with protecting its access to energy. In recent UNSC discussions, officials from other countries have argued for sanctions targeting Iran’s energy sector, which would be most crippling to the Iranian economy. China has opposed such a strategy, probably because it imports around 460,000 barrels of Iranian oil a day and invests heavily in Iran’s energy sector.

On a more fundamental level, China has historically abstained from measures that infringe on other states’ sovereignty. Two of China’s Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence, which serve as the foundation of China’s foreign policy, are mutual respect for sovereignty and non-interference in others’ internal affairs. These principles not only help China’s relations with other countries but prevent foreign powers from intervening in its domestic affairs as well, namely on human rights, Tibet and Taiwan issues. To the Chinese, economic sanctions would cross over the line into domestic affairs. They would not only violate the spirit of territorial integrity but also prove counter-productive, the Chinese have argued.

Recently, Iran appealed to China’s commitment to sovereignty and called on the Chinese to resist international pressure, specifically pressure from the United States. Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast commented in March, “We are hopeful that China will not be affected by others’ demands and will have its own independent policy. We hope such independent, powerful countries will block bullying powers…” Iran has also offered financial incentives to China to further solidify their economic relationship.

Despite this, China has now shown a reluctant willingness to join with other UNSC members, just as it has in the past when under international pressure. In 2003, China thwarted the U.S.-backed attempt to condemn North Korea after it left the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, only to turn around and enforce sanctions against North Korea in 2006, when international pressure ratcheted up. Similarly, China supplied the International Atomic Energy Agency with intelligence on Iran’s secret nuclear build-up in 2008, after initially opposing sanctions against Iran. It seems that when China is isolated in its opposition, and especially when Russia agrees to cooperate with the other members of the UNSC, China finds its way back to the majority.

China has also shown considerable progress with global nuclear non-proliferation efforts, providing optimism on China’s dedication to nuclear security issues. Since signing the NPT in 1992 and the CTBT in 1996, China has been increasingly more active in the international arena in curtailing the spread of nuclear weapons. It has applied the same dedication at home as well with the development of domestic monitoring systems for nuclear related exports. China’s agreement Monday to work with the P5+1 on Iran mark another step in the country’s evolution toward a more responsible steward in the regime.

Now that it has agreed to work with the UNSC, China’s statements remain ambiguous as to what their version of an ideal sanction package would look like. How China behaves at the nuclear disarmament conference in Tehran next week will be very telling of how committed it is to working with the UNSC and the world on the non-proliferation issue. In the meantime, it is important the administration continues to ramp up international pressure on Iran, both to ensure China’s continue cooperation and to nudge Iran toward a solution.