Analysis: China unlikely to block Iran sanctions

China has pledged to retaliate for US arms sales to Taiwan and warns Sino-US ties will suffer further when Obama and Dalai Lama meet.

February 3, 2010 11:05
4 minute read.
Analysis: China unlikely to block Iran sanctions

hu jintao 248.88. (photo credit: Courtesy)


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WASHINGTON (AP) — The United States opens a critical international campaign this month to punish Iran for its nuclear program, and US officials and China experts believe Beijing — despite the heated anti-US rhetoric of recent days — won't stand in the way.

China has pledged to retaliate for US arms sales to Taiwan and warns Sino-US ties will suffer further when President Barack Obama and the Dalai Lama meet — as expected — later this month.

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Furthermore, Beijing has a history of opposing sanctions of any kind and has been particularly vocal in opposing those on Iran.

So, the logic flowing from the strident anti-US language from Beijing would create the natural expectation that China also would retaliate by vetoing the new American-led effort against Iran in the United Nations Security Council. Not so, say China watchers inside and outside the US government.

Obama has made ending Iran's nuclear weapons program a central issue on his foreign policy agenda. After initiating a fresh attempt to negotiate with Iran and winning no nibbles on that carrot by a 2009 year-end deadline, his administration promised to apply the stick — a fresh round of sanctions.

Iran denies it wants to build a nuclear weapon, claiming instead that it is enriching uranium for a web of reactors to generate electricity. And suddenly on Tuesday Iran said it was willing to send its enriched uranium out of the country — to Russia and France — to be converted into fuel rods for a civilian reactor that makes medical isotopes.

But Iran has already agreed to that once before pulling out of a deal.

The White House said Tehran should take its new position to the U.N. nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency.

"We made a good faith and balanced offer regarding the Tehran research reactor. We believe it makes sense for all parties," responded National Security Council spokesman Mike Hammer. "If Mr. Ahmadinejad's comments reflect an updated Iranian position, we look forward to Iran informing the IAEA."

China — with the US, Britain, France and Russia — holds a permanent seat on the Security Council and a veto by any one of them would kill the fresh American bid to punish Iran. Germany, while not a veto-holding member of the council, is deeply involved in the campaign to close off Tehran's nuclear ambitions.

The U.S. already has support from Britain, France and Germany for imposition of more and deeply painful sanctions against Tehran. Russia, which had joined China in insisting the teeth be removed from three previous rounds of U.N. sanctions, now appears to have grown frustrated with Iran and ready to support stiff penalties.

That would leave the Chinese standing alone in any effort to shoot down further sanctions, and that's a position the Chinese usually scurry from.

"I expect a very tough set of negotiations behind closed doors," said Kenneth Lieberthal, of the Brookings Institution. "They are reluctant players, but not unmovable."

That is the view, as well, of Douglas Paal at the Carnegie Endowment, who said the Chinese will do their utmost to weaken a new sanctions regime, but won't resort to a veto.

While Beijing depends heavily on Iran for oil and has major investments in the country, it also is aware that it is dependent on other Middle East oil states for energy. Those sources, like Saudi Arabia, are deeply concerned about Iran's nuclear weapons ambitions.

Regardless of angry Chinese rhetoric, Paal said the Chinese "don't have many diplomatic tools" that would allow them to use a UN veto in reaction to the US arms sales to Taiwan or Obama's coming meeting with the Dalai Lama.

China claims Taiwan — a perennial sore point in relations with the US — as its own territory and regards arms sales to the self-governing island democracy as a violation of its sovereignty. China said Saturday it was suspending military exchanges with the U.S. in response to the sale and could take further unspecified action, including its own sanctions on American companies.

On Tuesday, Zhu Weiqun, a Chinese participant in weekend talks with the Dalai Lama's representatives, warned that an Obama meeting with the Dalai Lama would "seriously undermine the political foundation" of China-U.S. relations.

Chinese officials are keen to avoid an Obama-Dalai Lama meeting before President Hu Jintao travels to Washington, possibly in April.

Beijing demonizes the Dalai Lama and says he seeks to destroy China's sovereignty by pushing independence for Tibet. The Dalai Lama has maintained for decades he wants some form of autonomy that would allow Tibetans to freely practice their culture, language and religion under China's rule, not independence.

The sound and fury from Beijing, thus, is to be expected and in line with past Chinese anger on those issues. And viewed from the US side it is seen as a blaze of rhetoric soon to cool.

Steven R. Hurst has covered foreign policy for 30 years.

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