Stephen M. Walt

I’ll believe it when I see it….

The New York Times and other news agencies are now reporting that China is preparing to get behind the U.S.-led effort to toughen economic sanctions on Iran. The Times’s headline (in the print version) reads "China Supports Iran Sanctions," but the actual story tells a rather different tale. It says that President Hu Jintao agreed ...

ERIC FEFERBERG/AFP/Getty Images
ERIC FEFERBERG/AFP/Getty Images

The New York Times and other news agencies are now reporting that China is preparing to get behind the U.S.-led effort to toughen economic sanctions on Iran. The Times’s headline (in the print version) reads "China Supports Iran Sanctions," but the actual story tells a rather different tale. It says that President Hu Jintao agreed yesterday to "join negotiations" for a new sanctions package, but reminds readers that China has a well-established pattern of using negotiations to delay and deflect stiffer measures. In particular, the article reports that former President George W. Bush tried three times to "corral Chinese support " for tougher penalties on Iran, only to have China use its participation to "water down" the resulting resolutions.

This pattern should not surprise us, because China has every reason to drag its feet on meaningful economic sanctions. To begin with, China wants to safeguard its access to Iranian oil and gas and protect its ability to invest in Iran. Iran is now China’s second largest source of oil and gas (providing about 15 percen of its consumption), and China is Iran’s second largest customer. China has also become a substantial investor in Iran’s economy. With demand for oil likely to grow in the future, this is not a relationship Beijing is likely to jeopardize.

Second, China is sanguine about the prospects of an Iranian bomb because it has a more realistic view of what that development would mean. China’s leaders know that they didn’t gain a lot of geopolitical clout when they tested their own nuclear weapon in 1964, and being a nuclear power didn’t enable them to dictate or blackmail Taiwan, Vietnam, the Koreas, or anyone else. China’s rise to great power status was driven by its economic development, not its modest nuclear arsenal, and Bejing knows that same would be true for a nuclear Iran. While China would probably prefer that Iran not develop nuclear weapons, it hasn’t succumbed to worst-case paranoia and isn’t willing to pay a large price to prevent that from happening.

Furthermore, keeping the U.S.-Iranian pot simmering (but not boiling) is in Bejing’s long-term interest. America’s ham-handed involvement in the Persian Gulf and Central Asia has been a tremendous strategic boon for Beijing, and they undoubtedly feel a profound schadenfreude as they watch the Uncle Sam expend trillions of dollars in Iraq and Afghanistan while simultaneously maintaining an icy confrontation with Iran. After all, the more time, money, attention and political capital we devote to Iran, the less we can focus on China’s long-term efforts to build influence in Asia and eventually supplant the U.S. role there. Plus, bad relations between Washington and Teheran creates diplomatic and investment opportunities for China. The last thing Bejing wants is a prompt resolution of the Iranian nuclear issue, because it might pave the way for a more substantial détente between Washington and Teheran, thereby diminishing Beijing’s value and allowing U.S. strategists to shift their attention elsewhere.

At the same time, China doesn’t want a war to break out in the Gulf, which could send oil prices soaring (at least temporarily), put the world economy back in recession, and lead to other unpredictable consequences. So it would like the United States and its allies to keep confronting Iran via economic sanctions, but slowly, so that the dispute with Iran never goes away and the use of force stays off the table.

For China, therefore, the optimal strategy is to drag its heels and play for time. This approach means never quite refusing to go along with stiffer sanctions but never saying "yes" either. They’ll probably agree to some additional penalties eventually (maybe after a desperate United States agrees to guarantee China’s oil supplies against an Iranian cutoff!), but they won’t back anything severe enough to convince Iran to forego nuclear enrichment altogether. The dispute will continue, U.S. leaders will devote lots of time and attention to it, and China’s long-term interests will be advanced. 

That, ladies and gentlemen, is Realism 101. Too bad that Washington seems to have forgotten how to play it.

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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