Iran’s Chinese shield

Beijing’s greed for secure oil imports is causing a breakdown in the world’s only system for disciplining countries that endanger peace.

ahmadinejad 311 (photo credit: AP)
ahmadinejad 311
(photo credit: AP)
Iran’s threat to “punch” the West will exacerbate the worries of many people who follow events in the Middle East and who are increasingly worried that the world is sleepwalking toward a new regional war that might become global. The causes are, first, Iran’s determination to build nuclear weapons capable of being used against Israel, and second, the world’s apparent inability to stop it.
If there is a war, a large part of the responsibility will rest with China.
This may seem an odd statement. How can China be responsible for a war far from its borders, in an area where it has no direct involvement?
The answer is that China has the status of a great power, including a veto in the UN Security Council, but instead of becoming a responsible member of the world community, acting jointly with other powers to avert the prospect of war, China is using its new power in ways that make war more likely.
China’s military and diplomatic  strength have increased enormously over the past 20 years, riding the back of its strong economic growth, which has averaged 9 percent a year over that time. But it is still a long way from challenging the global military power of the US – its military spending is only 14% of US spending.
Last December, a triumphalist military parade marking the victory of Chinese communism illustrated that China has nonetheless begun to think of itself as a world power, and many have accepted that assessment.
There are, however, major differences between China and most of the world’s  leading powers – the US, its NATO allies, Japan and India. Unlike these, China is a poor country economically and a dictatorship politically. Even after 30 years of growth, its per capita GDP is still only $6,500 – less than that of Ecuador or Angola, and only 14% of America’s. Given its scarcity of arable land and resources relative to its population, China will always be poor unless it engages in international trade. Since 1979 it has hugely expanded such trade, and is now the world’s largest exporter. Revenue from exports has paid for its increasing prosperity.
BUT THE Chinese people have now come to expect constantly rising standards of living, and this is the greatest weakness of the nation’s communist regime. The Chinese will tolerate the communists’ power monopoly only so long as their living standards keep rising. That can only happen if the Chinese economy continues to grow at more than 7% a year. That, in turn, requires that Chinese manufacturing for export continues to grow.
The weak link in this system is China’s inadequate energy resources. Even with coal, nuclear power and its huge hydroelectric schemes, China is short of energy, and its dependence on imports is growing. Australia, as a major exporter of coal and natural gas, has been one of the major beneficiaries, but China’s greatest need is for oil, and this Australia cannot supply.
China can buy all the oil it wants on the international market, but its leaders don’t want China’s prosperity, and hence their own hold on power, to be dependent on a free market which they don’t trust. They want control. They want certainty. They see the way to get these things is by making deals with selected oil-exporting countries, preferably ones which are at political odds with the West, so that their need for friends is greater.
This explains China’s deep involvement with Sudan – one of the world’s nastiest regimes, responsible for the deaths of up to 300,000 people in Darfur. Sudan now supplies nearly 10 percent of China’s oil imports. It’s a cozy deal – China gets a secure oil supply and Sudan gets arms and diplomatic protection. The Sudanese regime knows it will never face UN sanctions, because China will use its Security Council veto to protect it.
AN EVEN bigger supplier of oil to China is Iran. China now gets 15% of its oil from Iran, and is Iran’s second-biggest customer after Japan. As with Sudan, China also pays for its oil by protecting Iran against UN sanctions. That is why, with even Russia threatening to support sanctions against Iran for its nuclear ambitions, Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi said China will not support further UN Security Council sanctions on Iran.
This is a very dangerous game. President Ahmadinejad is determined to build nuclear weapons, and has many times threatened Israel with destruction. He may be bluffing, but this is not a risk Israel can afford to take. If the international community cannot restrain Iran, the Israeli government will face great pressure to take preemptive steps to protect the country against attack.
Thus China’s greed for secure oil imports, and its willingness to docorrupt deals with oppressive outlaw regimes to secure them, is causinga breakdown in the world’s only system for disciplining countries thatendanger peace. If the system of UN sanctions breaks down because ofChina’s use of its veto to protect its friends, this opens up a seriousdanger of war. If that danger is realised, China will bear a heavyshare of the blame.
The writer is the Federal Member forMelbourne Ports and chairman of the Foreign Affairs Subcommittee of theAustralian Parliament.