China's Olympic challenge

China does not want to see a nuclear-armed Iran. But it has never been a strong believer in sanctions.

Ahmadinejad China 224 ap (photo credit:)
Ahmadinejad China 224 ap
(photo credit: )
To see what is right and not to do it is want of courage. - Confucius It's not just how you play the game, or even whether you win or lose. In Olympic diplomacy, it's also how you shmooze. And there will be plenty of talking on the sidelines of the 2008 Olympic Games, which open tonight in Beijing. World leaders, among them US President George W. Bush, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and French President Nicholas Sarkozy will be doing more than watching the events. President Shimon Peres is also in Beijing, primarily to encourage world leaders to back punitive sanctions that will encourage Iran to reexamine the benefits vs the costs of building a bomb. Peres's efforts will be directed mostly at the Chinese themselves. He will meet with business leaders, newspaper editorial boards, appear on television and "chat" with surfers on one of the country's popular Internet portals. The Chinese have graciously arranged for our 85-year-old president to stay at a special hotel inside the Olympic compound and within walking distance of the Olympics' opening ceremony, which takes place tonight after the onset of Shabbat. Peres will find China a complicated mix of freedom and repression. Starting in 1978, under Deng Xiaoping, the country evolved from doctrinaire communism to a freer economy. The Communist Party managed to turn itself into a vehicle for upward mobility and entrepreneurship, maintaining political control while remaining sufficiently adaptive to co-opt rather than repress, where possible. It freed the economy yet continues to control the energy, communications and finance sectors. Hosting the Olympics is a massive achievement for the Chinese, coming as it does despite international opposition from critics of Beijing's human rights record, Tibetan unrest, a devastating earthquake in Sichuan and, just this week, Muslim violence in Xinjiang. Most Chinese are bursting with nationalist pride at hosting the Games. They should know that most Israelis, this newspaper included, opposed calls to boycott the games. THE MOST important 30 minutes of Peres's 72-hour visit are scheduled for this morning, when he is to meet with President Hu Jintao. Iran will top the agenda. China's relationship with Teheran, its permanent seat on the UN Security Council, and its status as a first-tier world power position Beijing as a key player in international efforts to block Iran from producing nuclear weapons. Conversely, if China joins Russia in helping Iran play for time, it will effectively remove the UN from efforts to solve the crisis via diplomacy. China faces a dilemma. A country of 1.3 billion people, it accounts for about 40 percent of the world's recent increase in oil demand (though the US remains the world's foremost oil consumer). While China is a major oil producer, the needs of its galloping economy far outpace what it can pump domestically. That's why China is one of Iran's biggest oil customers and why it imports 58 percent of its petroleum from the Middle East - 11% from Iran. China does not want to see a nuclear-armed Iran. At the same time, it has never been a strong believer in sanctions because a major pillar of Chinese foreign policy is "non-interference" in the internal affairs of another country. Iran, however, is a special case and we hope that Hu Jintao will be open to Peres's entreaties. It is not in China's interest to see a regime that embraces the Islamist culture of death along with nascent Persian imperialism equip itself with nuclear weapons. The mullahs would feel themselves emboldened to spread their extremism worldwide - including to China. Blocking potent sanctions is the equivalent of taking them off the table and painting Jerusalem into a corner, making the military option more likely. That would be setting the stage for a destabilizing scenario with the potential to disrupt oil shipments through the Strait of Hormuz. The people of China deserve to reap the bounty of their country's extraordinary achievements without the unprecedented threat to world stability posed by Iranian fanaticism, hegemony and bellicosity. Beyond self-interest, 21st-century China has another reason to block the Iranian bomb: Chinese ascendancy on the world stage. With world leadership come responsibilities. President Hu must now summon the courage to define his country's interests within the global context.