Those following the Chinese media during the recent visit of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad may have noticed a slight change in China’s tone toward Iran, indicating that the Chinese, while still interested in cooperating with Iran on a range of issues, are starting to lose patience with Iran’s refusal to assuage Western concerns regarding the Iranian nuclear weapons program.

Ahmadinejad visited Beijing on June 6-7 at the invitation of his counterpart, Chinese President Hu Jintao, to attend the annual economic summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), a body that is China’s attempt to balance US and western influence in Asia. China is Iran’s main trading partner, a key investor in Iranian economy, and continues to be a major buyer of Iranian oil, recent import cuts notwithstanding. China has also been instrumental in watering down the UN sanctions leveled against Iran.

While Iran only has observer status at the SCO, China was conscious of the global attention on Ahmadinejad’s visit, especially in view of the stumbling talks around Iran’s nuclear program. After two recent rounds of talks between Tehran and world powers and ahead of another round in Moscow, the sides are nowhere close to reaching an agreement. Even though Iran’s willingness to enter the talks stems from the biting economic sanctions, Iran seems to bet the differences between the world powers, the prospect of rising oil prices, and the support for Iran from China and Russia would cause the West to bend eventually.

Still, China understands (though it may not say so explicitly) that the Iranian nuclear program includes a military component and is aimed at extending its regional influence. Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao reiterated to the visiting Iranian president China’s opposition to any Middle Eastern country seeking to acquire nuclear weapons, and it was clear Wen meant Iran. Even more significant was Hu Jintao’s message to Ahmadinejad during the official meeting.

While reiterating China’s long-standing position that differences over Iran’s nuclear program should be solved by peaceful means and negotiations, Hu urged Iran to show “flexibility and pragmatism” during the talks. Also significant was Hu using the expression shenshi duoshi, which means “judge the hour and size up the situation,” indicating China is pressing Iran to yield and believes Iran must seize upon the chance given it during the talks. Hu further stated that Iran should “have serious talks with all six related nations, and enhance dialogues and cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency.”

There were further signs that China is aware of Western concerns over Iran’s nuclear program. While Ahmadinejad’s visit resembled a state visit (including a red carpet, honor guard review) and he met with the top three Chinese leaders, China’s foreign ministry didn’t define it as a state visit. This was his third visit to China, and all three were a part of some international activity and not an official state visit.

Media coverage was also relatively low key – for example, People’s Daily, the official mouthpiece of the Communist Party, didn’t run its own article on the visit and simply used the Xinhua News Agency copy. Another example is the fact that Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi remained in Beijing for talks with his Chinese counterpart Yang Jiechi, which was not covered at all by the Chinese media.

The protocol-conscious Chinese didn’t offer Ahmadinejad the opportunity to hold a press conference while in Beijing, and while he talked to students at Peking University, he read from a prepared statement, was not allowed to take questions, and didn’t mention his country’s nuclear program. As Yin Gang, a prominent Chinese Middle East expert put it, for someone as “outspoken” as Ahmadinejad, his speech at Peking University was the “most restrained ever, and he is someone who doesn’t need to use a prepared statement.”

In a nod to Western concerns, the Chinese hosts didn’t discuss (at least openly) energy cooperation with Iran during the visit. Still, China isn’t willing to give up its cooperation with Iran completely. Hu told Ahmadinejad that China and Iran should “maintain contacts and coordination on major international and regional issues so as to preserve regional peace and stability, and enable common development.” This goes slightly further than Hu’s suggestion in 2008 that “both sides should also strengthen international cooperation and work together to maintain regional and global peace and stability,” and shows China’s recognition of Iran’s importance to issues like the uprising in Syria.

The relatively toned-down visit and the acknowledgement of Western sensitivities when it comes to Ahmadinejad, combined with China’s desire to continue working with Iran, exemplifies China’s position that it doesn’t want to be dragged into the “zero-sum game” between Iran and the US. Still, China understands that any conflagration in the Middle East as a result of the Iranian push for nuclear weapons is bound to hurt China’s interests as well. The carefully chosen language used by Chinese President Hu in his meeting with Ahmadinejad attests to that.

The author is Director for China Affairs at The Israel Project, an international organization that provides fact-based information about Israel to the press, policymakers and public.

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