WASHINGTON (IPS) — For China these days it seems that nothing — not rising energy prices, not sanctions aimed at its more unsavory business partners, Burma and Sudan, not even the prospect of a nuclear Iran — can curb its thirst for oil.
As China’s energy needs grow at a rate higher than any other country’s, so too have its economic relationships with the oil-producing nations of the Gulf. Like the U.S more than 60 years ago, China today is seen as a new and commercially refreshing player, happily unsentimental and — crucially — disinterested in the internal affairs of the region.
As Adbulaziz Sager of the Gulf Research Centre notes, “The chief advantage of China’s role in the region is its lack of political baggage.”
With the U.S. mired in its “war on terror,” tied up in knots of its own making, needing desperately to extricate itself from Iraq while preserving its eroding influence, China appears poised to challenge U.S. interests in the region.
But if that has Washington worried, it shouldn’t, says Jon B. Alterman of the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), who has co-authored a new study with John Garver on China’s interests in the region entitled “The Vital Triangle: China, the United States, and the Middle East.”
“The tendency in the U.S. is to see China as a threat or counter to U.S. interests,” he said during a panel Wednesday, adding that China’s involvement in the region exposes its own national security vulnerability.
“The Chinese lose sleep at night thinking that their energy dependence relies on the Middle East,” he said.
Beijing, which imports half its oil from the Middle East, views political instability in the region as its greatest threat. Often, it is Washington’s policies that precipitate that insecurity, and which Beijing — with no political or military footprint of its own — has been unable to curb.
According to Ambassador Chaz Freeman, a career U.S. diplomat and chief interpreter during President Richard Nixon’s path-breaking visit to China in 1972, the Chinese “don’t see themselves as rivaling the U.S.” in the region, yet they are unlikely to “subordinate themselves to us, or underwrite our dominance.”
The status quo presumably makes a strategic relationship between the U.S. and China all the more appealing. While opportunities exist to create a multilateral security framework to reduce tensions and keep the oil flowing, China has been generally reluctant to take on the role of “responsible stakeholder” on the international stage, a term coined by former Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick.
It is even more cautious in dealing with the issue of immediate concern to the U.S.: Iran’s nuclear program and Beijing’s cordial relations with the Islamic Republic.
As Alterman and Garver contend, “China recognizes Iran as a durable and like-minded major regional power with which cooperation has and will serve China’s interest in many areas.”
Iran exports 340,000 barrels of oil per day to China, making it Beijing’s third largest supplier, behind Angola and Saudi Arabia. China’s investments in Iranian oil infrastructure include a recent deal estimated at 100 billion dollars to develop the Yadavaran oil field, and the construction of a 386-km oil pipeline running through neighboring Kazakhstan.
From Washington’s perspective, it is Beijing’s technical cooperation on Iran’s civilian nuclear program and China’s continued attempts to deflect pressure on Iran over its nuclear dossier that are most troubling. China’s sale of what Washington considers dual-use chemicals, capable of being diverted to military use, has led the U.S. to sanction some of China’s state-owned companies.
“Nuclear Iran is going to be a game changer in the Middle East,” said former Undersecretary of State for Policy Nicholas Burns.
As the Europeans have decreased their economic trade with Iran in response to U.S-led calls for isolation, Burns said that Beijing has only stepped in to fill the void.
On Monday, the European Union tightened its own sanctions on Iran, freezing assets of the Iranian Bank Melli and imposing travel bans on high-level experts involved in Iran’s nuclear program.
“The Chinese need to understand the primacy of the Middle East for the United States,” he said. “Will China realize it’s on the virtual governing board of the world? There’s a question of whether China sees that role for themselves.”
While Washington awaits the improbable, it seems that Beijing will continue to hedge its bets. It has slowly been persuaded to act on Iran, joining the other four permanent members of the U.N. Security Council — Britain, France, Russia and the U.S. — in addition to Germany, to offer Tehran a revised package of incentives should it halt its uranium-enrichment activities.
China’s official position states that sanctions will not fundamentally resolve the nuclear issue, and is only a means to persuade Iran to negotiate under conditions agreed upon by the U.N. Security Council. Like Russia, they oppose any move that would lead to an escalation in tensions at the expense of their economic interests in Iran.
But China also wants to avoid a confrontation over Tehran’s program and balances against whichever side — the U.S. or Iran — leans towards it, said Alterman.
“The more the U.S. tips towards war, the more [China] sides with Iran; if Iran is being confrontational, the more they tip to the U.S,” said Alterman. “It’s a subtle policy, not what they do, but how they do.”
For Freeman, the erosion of U.S. influence in the region means that Washington won’t be able to set the agenda, or control events as it once did. But that is not necessarily a bad thing.
“What we are witnessing is part of a broad dilution of U.S. dominance,” he said. “If you can’t tell people what to do, then you must persuade them, and that is what diplomats supposedly know how to do.”