Daniel W. Drezner

Beijing frets about the Iran Lobby

Beijing frets about the Iran Lobby

The Financial Times’ indefatigable Goeff Dyer has an excellent story about Israel’s efforts to lobby Beijing to take a tougher line on Iran.  Actually, that’s really just the news peg for a story about the myriad ways in which Beijing is becoming enmeshed in Middle East politics: 

Beijing… has to weigh up a growing web of other interests in the Middle East which could have some influence on its approach to sanctions.

Indeed, parts of the foreign policy establishment in China are warning that it would be against the government’s interests in the Middle East to get too close to Iran.

China should not “undertake to please Iran and at the same time hurt the feelings of the Arabs and other countries,” said Yin Gang, a Chinese expert on the Middle East in a recent article.

Israel is part of that web of interests. Although China has taken a pro-Palestinian position in international forums and is critical of Israel’s nuclear capability,Beijing has over the years had an unusually close relationship with Israel, which has been a key military supplier.

“The relationship with Israel is an important one,” says Willem van Kemenade, a China analyst who has written a book on Iran’s relations with China….

According to diplomats, Beijing has been quietly lobbied by Saudi Arabia, which has been its biggest supplier of oil for most of the past decade and which has warned of the dangers a nuclear Iran would pose to Middle East stability.

Chinese analysts admit that a nuclear arms race in the Middle East could pose a risk to its energy security.

Yet China has interests in Iran that go beyond energy investments.

Chinese scholars mention that China’s own nuclear weapons capability was achieved in the face of western sanctions. Chinese leaders share with Iran a suspicion of what they regard as western interference in their domestic politics.

Many Chinese observers consider the unrest in Iran to be partly inspired by US interests. China also sees Iran as a future partner in a Middle East in which the US is less dominant….

There is also the added question of China’s Muslim population. After the riots in Xinjiang last summer, China was criticised for its treatment of its Uighur minority by Turkey and by two Iranian ayatollahs.

Given how sensitive Beijing is about political radicalisation of Muslims in Xinjiang by people outside the country, “the incident was a warning to Beijing that it must exercise caution when dealing with Iran’s political and religious elites”, according to a recent report by the International Crisis Group

So, just to review: 

1)  China is cozying up to a powerful country on the periphery of the Middle East;

2)  Because of its religion and periodically bellicose foreign policy, that country is viewed as an outsider by the Arab Middle East;

3)  This country is pursuing internal security policies that would generously be described as "controversial" by the rest of the world;

4)  It’s Middle East policy can have pronounced effects on China’s own domestic politics; 

5)  All the while, Chinese energy dependence on the region is increasing rapidly.

Welcome to the Middle East, China!!