Chinese media closely follows Israel-US spat on Iran

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech to Congress has generated intense interest in the Chinese media for several reasons, some less obvious than others.

March 9, 2015 22:21
4 minute read.
Netanyahu Congress

Netanyahu speaks to Congress. (photo credit: screenshot)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech to Congress, laying out in detail Israel’s opposition to what appears to be an imminent deal between the world powers and Iran regarding the latter’s controversial nuclear program, has generated intense coverage in the Chinese media. The coverage opens a window on China’s interests in the Israel-US-Iran triangle.

One obvious reason for the interest is China’s concern whether Netanyahu’s speech may induce last-minute changes in the agreement as presented by the P5+1 powers to Iran. China is opposed to nuclear proliferation, and has been prodding Iran to do its part in order to reach an agreement.

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As one of the P5+1 powers negotiating with Iran, China has an obvious interest in the conclusion of the agreement with Iran regarding its nuclear program, the lifting of the sanctions imposed on the Islamic Republic, and the resumption of normal trade relations with one of China’s top crude oil suppliers.

While China is not enthusiastic about the prospect of a nuclear Iran, it wants to maintain its good ties with what it sees as an important regional power, and does not perceive the prospect of an Iranian nuclear bomb the same as the Western powers do. Hence, China was watching closely the standoff between Israel and the Obama administration over the likely terms of the agreement.

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China’s interests can be gleaned from the coverage before and after the speech. Before the speech, The People’s Daily (Renmin Ribao) ran an extensive piece on the increasingly acrimonious spat between Netanyahu and the Obama administration due to the differences of opinion on the terms of the deal.

The People’s Daily is the official mouthpiece of the Communist Party of China, and as such is the most authoritative voice of China. Titled “The Iranian Nuclear Problem Deepens the Rift between US and Israel,” the article details the pressure brought by Obama on Netanyahu before his speech to Congress and the controversy generated by the speech at home.

In the Chinese state-owned media, the story’s location and position matter. The length of the article – about a third of the entire page, its position on the upper part of the page, and the fact the article was on page 3 – the Important News section and the same page where Zhong Sheng, the most important editorial of the People’s Daily, is printed – all testify to the importance with which China views the discord between Israel and the US on the Iranian nuclear program.

That article, published on February 27, and the detailed reportage following Netanyahu’s speech shows a cautious and calibrated approach by China to the issue of Iranian nuclear program.

Reports in Xinhua (China’s official news agency) and Global Times (the international edition of the People’s Daily) carried accurately and in detail Netanyahu’s criticism of the deal proposed by the Obama administration and his accusations of Iran as the sponsor of global terrorism.

The official Chinese media was quoting Netanyahu as saying that Iran “is a threat to the world,” showing that at the very least China thinks Netanyahu’s point of view is a legitimate one, even if it doesn’t necessarily agree with it. The Chinese media usually shies away from carrying sharp criticism by one country against another, and so in this case as well, Netanyahu’s accusations against Iran and Iran’s angry retorts carried in the Chinese media were attributed to reports in the foreign media.

It also pointed out in detail that the source of discord are real differences of opinion between Israel and the US over the best way to deal with the Iranian nuclear problem, and notes that the trigger to the latest round was the decision by the US to extend the P5+1 talks with Iran. It also noted that US President Barack Obama, whose position on the subject has “drifted,” is driven by political interests in his desire to reach a deal viewed less than favorably by all of the US’s Middle East allies.

In between the lines, another theme emerges. Because of the strategic relations between Israel and the US, China is watching the rift between the two countries closely. A report in a Xinhua-affiliated weekly titled “Capitol Hill Becomes Israel’s ‘Backyard,’” highlighted China’s fascination with Netanyahu’s ability to take his case to Congress over the objections of the Obama administration, a point that was not lost on the Chinese.

The author is the founding director of The Chinese Media Center (CMC), at the School of Media Studies of The College of Management Academic Studies, Rishon LeZion, Israel.

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