April 15, 2010

US, China: More Give, Less Take


With its announcement that sanctions against Iran could be a possibility, China has offered the Obama administration a prime opportunity to deal with what has been the thorn to its nuclear security agenda, comments Graham Ong-Webb for ISN Security Watch.

By Graham Ong-Webb for ISN Security Watch

China and the US arrived at an interesting crossroad on the Iran issue during the Nuclear Security Summit hosted by the Obama administration in Washington this week. For the first time, Chinese President Hu Jintao concurred that, in principle,a set of potential sanctions would be a necessary measure to raise the costs of Iran’s clandestine nuclear program.

It is certainly a moment that the Obama administration would do well to seize before Hu changes his mind. Now, all the US might need to do is barter with the Chinese.

One could say that this development from China’s end is something of a small miracle. From the onset, Beijing has been against imposing sanctions on Tehran. It is definitely not because the Chinese leadership is against using sanctions as an instrument of coercive diplomacy. After all, China itself threatened to slap sanctions on the US in January for announcing an arms sales package to Taiwan.

The picture is complicated by the disjuncture between Sino-Iranian and Sino-US relations. China’s economic relations with Iran remain strong. Iranian oil is vital to China’s insatiable energy needs (about 15 percent of Chinese imports). China is the second largest import market in Iran after Germany (8.5 percent of total imports in 2005 according to the Iranian press).

The second has to do with the poor state of Sino-US bilateral relations over the past year. Both sides share the blame. China openly lashed out at the US for the global economic crisis. It refused to support a tougher climate change agreement in Copenhagen. It also smacked down any suggestion to appreciate the value of the renminbi.

US President Barack Obama recently visited the Dalai Lama, the exiled Tibetan leader whom China has labelled a separatist, and although Google’s decision to withdraw its services from China after declaring that it would cease to censor search results there was an independent one, Beijing blames the US administration’s championing of internet freedom.

Most of these problems are not intractable. The US can help China find alternative energy supplies and consumer markets that will appeal to China’s economic interest and encourage it to break ranks with Iran. Both sides can also do with a shot of sensitivity: China must rein in its newfound arrogance that comes with its economic success; the US must cease provoking China through actions such as the Dalai Lama visit, especially while it is trying to secure Chinese cooperation on Iran.

The greatest blow, however, still came from the latest US arms deal with Taiwan. In addition to the threat of sanctions, China reprimanded the US ambassador to China; suspended plans for further Sino-US. military exchanges; and postponed vice ministerial-level talks on security, arms control and non-proliferation.

Yet, two months later, China’s top leader attends an event that stands to be the most important nuclear-security meeting of the year. More importantly, Hu says exactly what Obama has long wanted to hear.

It is clear, however, China can easily take back its hand as extend it. Around the same time the Chinese president came to a general agreement with his US counterpart, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman at the Summit reiterated that sanctions were still not a solution to the Iranian nuclear issue. She added that Beijing only supports a “dual-track strategy” of diplomacy and dialogue with Tehran.

This is not a clash of messages from the Chinese government. In the end, Hu is the 'Paramount Leader' (danghe guojia zuigao lingdaoren) of the People’s Republic of China: His word trumps all. Instead, it is a message of conditionality. The Chinese have opened the door and the US must be willing to walk through.

Might a US freeze on the Taiwanese arms deal help? Very plausibly, yes. Certainly, it will come to some cost to the Obama administration. But the cost of a nuclear Iran is even greater.

Graham Ong-Webb is an Associate with the Centre for Science and Security Studies at the Department of War Studies, King’s College London.

The views and opinions expressed herein are those of the author only, not the International Relations and Security Network (ISN).

No comments: