Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi 248.
(photo credit: AP)
China's oil and natural gas imports from Iran could be jeopardized in the future if pressure does not increase on the Islamic republic to cease its nuclear program and a military confrontation ensues, Israeli officials will tell China's foreign minister, The Jerusalem Post has learned.
Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi arrived in Israel for a three-day visit on Wednesday.
During his stay, Israeli diplomats will argue that a more proactive stance on China's part to pressure Iran will serve Beijing's interests, by helping to avert a military conflict, thus safeguarding an important energy source for the growing and energy-hungry Chinese economy.
Jiechi will be urged by officials in Jerusalem to up the ante in the campaign to persuade Iran to halt its nuclear development work.
Diplomatic sources in Jerusalem view Jiechi's visit as an important opportunity to raise Israel's concerns over Iran, but they remain uncertain over the impact such a presentation will ultimately make on China's Iran policy.
Israel remains concerned by China's absence in the coalition of countries pushing for harsher and more aggressive sanctions on Iran, and by the political effects of flourishing Sino-Iranian trade relations.
Trade between Beijing and Teheran reaches around $25 billion a year, and China's economy, which is growing by 10 percent a year, has been partially fed by Iranian oil, which represents approximately 13% of China's oil imports.
China expert Prof. Yitzhak Shichor of the University of Haifa's Department of Asian Studies, told the Post he was skeptical that Israel's arguments would alter Beijing's view.
"In the event of a military confrontation in the Gulf, Iran can block the Hormuz Straits, and this would affect not just Iran but Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and the UAE. That would be a real problem which China would want to avoid," Shichor said.
"But Beijing believes a military confrontation is the least likely scenario. Sanctions would come first," he said, noting that China could deal with sanctions on Iran by importing more oil from Saudi Arabia.
"China has alternatives to Iran if sanctions on Teheran are applied. In 2006, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia visited China and offered to provide all of China's energy needs singlehandedly. This is not a new message, but China does not want to depend on a single energy source," Shichor said.
"Officially, China claims Iran's nuclear program is civilian. But I'm sure they know no less than we do, and perhaps they know more. When I say 'we,' I'm referring to states that don't have access to Iran or a presence within it. The Chinese have intelligence-gathering capabilities [inside Iran]," Shichor said.
Irrespective of oil-related considerations, China's main gain in resisting further pressure on Iran lay in a global chess game with the US, Shichor stressed.
"This is a game in which energy plays a marginal role. The game is against the US and it's being fought by proxy," he said.
"China is not interested in directly confronting the US, so it does so indirectly via Iran," Shichor argued. "If, for example, the US arms Taiwan, China will respond to that intervention through Iran. Iran is a tool."
Economically, Sino-Israeli relations are good, with over $7b. of trade between the two countries in 2008, Shichor said. China imports Israeli farming technology to assist its farmers, as well as hi-tech and medical technology goods.
Shichor said Chinese officials were left red-faced when confronted with the use of Chinese-made weapons by Hamas and Hizbullah, prompting Beijing to apply "serious" pressure on Teheran to stop the transfer of the arms.
"There is no doubt Hizbullah used Chinese weapons. I have photographs of Hamas rockets fired on Beersheba from Gaza with Chinese markings," Shichor said, adding that "the Chinese claimed the markings came from metal pipes that were imported into Gaza.
"The Chinese were very embarrassed by this, they want to avoid their military technology being used against Israel," he added.
"My guess is that the Chinese had a serious talk with the Iranians, and asked them to stop providing these weapons to terror organizations. The Chinese ambassador in Teheran met with the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, and said, 'Stop this.'
"The Chinese have leverage on Iran and can threaten to reduce support for their nuclear program. So I think Chinese weapons transfers have ceased," Shichor said.