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    Greater China
     Dec 20, 2007
China seeks six-party solution on Iran
By Shulong Chu

Iran is again on the agenda of the US-China security relationship following the release of the recent National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) which concluded that Tehran had "halted", among other things, engaging in its development of nuclear weapons since 2003. President George W Bush and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, however, have insisted that Iran continues to be "very dangerous", a major "threat", and that its nuclear program can still potentially be used for hostile purposes.

Iran has yet to escape the eye of the US security storm. The United States, the European Union (EU) and the UN will continue

to mull over a solution for Iran - with or without Russia or China. China's ambassador to the United States, Wang Guangya, commented, "I think the [UN] council members will have to consider that [NIE], because I think we all start from the presumption that now things have changed." Iran, therefore, will continue to be one of the major issues for conflict, or opportunities for engagement, between the US and China.

Three common interests
The US and China do not often see eye-to-eye on Iran, but have increasingly cooperated on the Iranian issue in recent years. Iran was a major thorn in US-China relations in the early 1990s when the US criticized China’s sale of chemicals that could be used for developing chemical weapons in Iran, as well as China's "technological cooperation" with Iran on its civilian use of nuclear technology.

China stopped those programs with Iran in the mid-to-late 1990s. Since then, China has become a major part of the international non-proliferation regime and joined almost all the non-proliferation treaties. Additionally, China has moved closer in step with the international community, including the US, on the Iranian nuclear issue. There has been notable progress in consultation and cooperation due to the fact that the two countries were able to develop a common understanding and shared interests over the Iranian nuclear issue. Since 1998, China has started to work with other countries such as the UK, France, Russia, and the US, as well as the UN Security Council, on the Indian and Pakistani nuclear tests.

The process of the six-party talks on the North Korean nuclear issue brought the US and China to the table with a common purpose: to prevent the escalation of tension and strengthen the regional non-proliferation regime. Iran and North Korea represent a major area for US-China international consultation and cooperation. The US and China have worked as "stakeholders" in maintaining international and regional peace and security because they share three converging interests in the Iranian nuclear issue.

The first is stability in the Middle East - including the Persian Gulf. China and the US share a common interest in Middle East stability because the two countries are the biggest consumers of Middle East oil. The majority of oil imports by the US and China come from the region and China imports nearly 60% of its overseas oil imports from the Gulf. In order to ensure stable and reasonable energy supply abroad, especially from the Middle East, Iran is a an indispensable party to any national economic and strategic security for the two countries now and in the future. Clearly, the peace and stability of Iran and other parts of the Middle East are of common economic, security, and strategic interest to the US and China.

Secondly, non-proliferation of weapons of mass destruction is already an established common interest of both the US and China. The spread of nuclear weapons is a long-term threat to the international community. The more states or non-state actors possess nuclear weapons, the higher the possibility that some nation, regime, non-state actor or politician may play the nuclear card and heighten existential risks in unstable conflict situations.

Lastly, terrorism remains a major threat to the US, China and other countries. The Middle East region, and bordering countries such as Afghanistan, Pakistan, and even Central Asia, are the major sources of terrorist forces threatening the US and China. Separatist forces using car bombs in China's Xinjiang and border areas of Central and Western Asia, are a major national security threat - second only to Taiwan's move towards de jure independence. The support for Xinjiang's separatist forces comes mainly from Central and Western Asia.

These are the major common views and interests between the US and China over Iranian issues, and they have been the foundation of US-China cooperation in recent years. This foundation should enable the US and China to continue to engage over issues related to Iran and the Middle East. Still, China and the US seem to have more differences than agreements over Iran, especially concerning the nuclear issue.

Four divergences
The first issue concerns the gap in US and Chinese "threat" perceptions. The Chinese and Americans have widely differing perceptions about the threat or "potential threat" posed by Iran. To Americans - Republicans and Democrats alike - Iran and its nuclear weapons pose a very serious threat to peace and stability in the Middle East, because of its threat to Israel and American interests.

To the Chinese government, military leaders and public, Iran - even a nuclear Iran - does not pose any direct threat to China. In the eyes of the Chinese government, Iran is not "evil", nor even a bad country or regime, and unlikely to inflict harm on Chinese interests.

The second issue concerns the US's "intelligence" fumbles. Largely as the result of the mishandling of the Iraq war, the Chinese government has serious reservations about American statements and intelligence about Iran. The new NIE report reinforces perceptions that US intelligence is not reliable. The Chinese believe that there are differences between the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) conclusions and American suspicion about the Iranian nuclear program - just as there were differences between the UN's investigation on Iraq's nuclear weapons program and US claims before the Iraq War. Because China and the US continue to have differences about the Iranian nuclear program and its threat, the two governments will logically have disagreements on policies and timetables to deal with any contending "realities".

The third issue concerns historical relations - or a lack thereof - between the US and Iran. The Chinese see that the US has not had positive relations with Iran for many decades, so whatever the US or the international community do to Iran will not come at the expense of the US. In other words, the US has no need for caution in its dealings with Iran..

On the other hand, China has had a positive and mutually beneficial relationship with Iran for decades. In China's view, Iran is an important nation in the Middle East and a great civilization with much influence in the contemporary world. Iran's positive perception comes in addition to the fact that Iran has been a major source of China's foreign oil supply.

The Chinese government can afford to give up some of its interests with Iran, but the big question is "why?" Why should China sacrifice and subsequently suffer the cost of deteriorating relations with Iran? Is Iran such a serious threat to the world that China must act with others against it? What would China's incentives be to sacrifice its relations with Iran? The international opinion that China, as a "stakeholder", must work together with the US or the "international community" each time they demand, is not sufficient to Beijing.

The final divergence concerns China's national identity. China's leaders and its citizens still seriously believe that China is a developing country - albeit the biggest and fastest growing one in the developing world. Therefore, the Chinese consider the nation's various positions on international issues as moral issues. In the Chinese worldview, most of today's conflicting issues - North Korea, Iraq, Iran, Sudan and Myanmar - are issues between the developing and developed worlds. This makes it difficult for Chinese leaders to explain to their people why China at times sides with the developed world, and especially the US, when there is a conflict between developed country and a smaller, poorer country.

A six-party framework for Iran
China would like to see a six-party model used for dialogue on the Iranian nuclear issue. Although the six-party framework for the North Korean nuclear issue has not been perfect, the Chinese do believe it is the best approach available to deal with the problem peacefully, and insist it should be given a chance. On the Iranian nuclear issue, the Chinese would like to try a six-party process that includes the EU, the US, Russia, China, the UN, and Iran.

China may go along with some sanctions on Iran. But this will occur only if Iran walks away and refuses to come back to the proposed six-party talks, or actually tests nuclear weapons. Every opportunity to resolve the issue peacefully must be seized, before China will move towards sanctions.

This is why Beijing continues to state that China still hopes to resolve the disputes on the Iranian nuclear issue "through continuing diplomatic negotiation", even after the release of the NIE report on Iran. China has indicated it hopes that Iran will implement the UN resolutions, cooperate with the IAEA, and continue to engage with the EU. China has stated it will continue to work with all the other parties, including the US and Iran, to try to resolve the nuclear issue peacefully. If the peace process fails, then China will be ready for other options, including more comprehensive and serious UN sanctions against Iran.

But China will not forfeit to the "doomsday scenario" until Beijing is content that no effort has been spared to prevent it through dialogue, negotiation and engagement.

Chu Shulong, PhD, is currently a professor in political science and international relations at the School of Public Policy and Management, and deputy director, Institute of Strategic Studies of Tsinghua University in Beijing, China.

(This article first appeared in The Jamestown Foundation. Used with permission.)

(Copyright 2007 The Jamestown Foundation.)

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