Bystander No More

Iran's nuclear crisis is testing China's new proactive diplomacy. On Monday the conservative Iranian newspaper Jomhuri-ye Eslami's Web site issued a sharp challenge to Beijing's leaders over their actions in the nuke showdown.

Reminding readers of former Chinese Premier Deng Xiaoping's ties to the deposed Shah of Iran, the paper wrote that just hours after “defenseless and innocent people were shot down in a hail of machine-gun fire” during anti-shah unrest in Tehran in 1978, Deng paid a visit. "Not only did he have an official meeting with the shah and announce his full support for the shah's regime, he even went to kiss the hand of the shah's wife.” The shah's fall several months later made the Chinese the world's “biggest diplomatic losers,” the publication said, leading to the blunt warning: “Today China's in the midst of Iran's ‘nuclear revolution' and is about to make the same mistake that it did during the Islamic Revolution.”

Iranians are piqued because China voted in favor of referring Iran to the United Nations Security Council, actively joining a consensus of major powers including the United States, Britain, Germany, France and Russia. Once upon a time Chinese authorities might've chosen to abstain—as they did on the issue of the first Persian Gulf War in 1990—rather than strain relations with Iran. But these days, when crisis grips the international community, it's not so easy for China to assume the stance of a bystander. After a quarter century of near-double-digit economic growth, Beijing's diplomacy is emerging from the passivity of just a decade or so ago. “With China's new profile in the international arena, Beijing has been taking a more proactive approach,” says Tao Wenhao, director of the American research institute of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS). The best example of this, he says, is China's hosting of the six-party talks aimed at resolving the North Korean nuclear impasse.

Now comes the hard part, however. A tougher test for China's diplomats is expected in a month's time, after the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) makes its formal report to the Security Council on Iran's refusal to abandon its uranium-enrichment program. For now China's mantra on Iran is simple: diplomacy, diplomacy, diplomacy. Beijing's leaders want to maintain good relations with Tehran and to protect its right to a peaceful nuclear power program. But they also want to be seen as responsible global citizens—and to avoid frictions with the United States and Europe.

If push comes to shove, and Iran refuses to comply, Beijing will face prickly decisions such as proposed economic sanctions—something the Chinese traditionally try to avoid. "We oppose the use of sanctions, or threats of sanctions," insisted foreign-ministry spokesman Kong Quan in a Jan. 26 press conference. "This only complicates problems." In the eyes of many in Washington, Iran is shaping up to be a litmus test of Beijing's ability to play the role of a “responsible stakeholder” in the global community.

Much is at stake. China's phenomenal economic development has sparked a huge appetite for energy resources, and Iran is China's second-largest foreign oil supplier, accounting for about 13 percent of total oil imports. In 2004, the Chinese oil firm Sinopec signed a memorandum of understanding worth some $70 billion to develop Iranian oil. A year ago, Beijing agreed to buy $20 billion worth of Iran's liquefied natural gas over the next quarter century. Think of the impact economic sanctions could have on these grandiose plans. “The energy relationship is a factor, of course,” says Tao, “But even without it, China would want to stick to diplomacy. Look at Iraq—after so many years of economic sanctions [during Saddam Hussein's rule], the situation remained the same.”

Still, today's Chinese diplomats must weigh more than just barrels of crude. The question of whether China is able to subordinate its narrow national interest for the sake of the greater global good is popping up time and again, in relation to Beijing's ties with regimes from Sudan to Venezuela, from Burma to Zimbabwe. The phrase “responsible stakeholder” was coined last September by U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick. In a recent piece in The Wall Street Journal, authors Richard C. Bush and Jeffrey Bader put it this way: “To use a sandbox metaphor, when toddlers start throwing sand at each other, parents act not to defend their children's misbehavior but join to enforce the norm against throwing sand.”

The good news is that Beijing has begun to intervene in the sandbox when persuaded of the need to do so. In 2003, Chinese authorities decided to host negotiations among six nations' representatives, with hopes of resolving Pyongyang's nuclear stalemate. Since then the talks (hosted by China and including North Korea, the United States, South Korea, Japan and Russia) have taken place in fits and starts, with progress proving elusive. The simple fact that Pyongyang's still talking is seen as a good thing, though.

Of course, China's interest in trying to persuade North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons program is a bit of a no-brainer. Beijing is Pyongyang's closest ally and most important neighbor. Instability—or regime change—in North Korea could send waves of refugees over the Chinese border, and might even bring about the nightmare scenario that all Beijing officials want to avoid: the prospect of U.S. troops right up against the Chinese frontier.

While China has a unique relationship with Pyongyang, it doesn't enjoy the same with Iran. (China was once involved in two nuke projects in Iran, one to provide a scientific research reactor and another to help build a factory for nuclear waste storage; both were stopped in 1997.) Chinese authorities point to the historically close ties between Moscow and Tehran as one reason why Russia is logically a more assertive player. “Russia has more influence, it still has a nuclear relationship with Iran,” says Tao. “Even during the cold war, America and Russia were competing for influence in Iran.” China has endorsed Moscow's proposal to enrich uranium for the Iranians, as a way of persuading them not to do it themselves. But with so many players—and with so much at stake for each of them—can Beijing stay on good terms with Iran without alienating the Americans? The question has kept diplomats working late at the foreign ministry in Beijing, pondering how to avoid becoming what Jomhuri-ye Eslami called the world's “biggest diplomatic losers” once again.