Whilst the five permanent members of the UN Security Council are all in agreement that Iran shouldn’t be allowed to develop nuclear weapons, there have been clear differences between China and others on how to proceed. Do you see China eventually backing tougher action, and how much of an impact are the current differences having on ties with the US?
I think China’s in a difficult position in some ways because it’s under a lot of diplomatic pressure from the United States to support sanctions and doesn’t want to alienate the US too much. On the other hand, it gets a huge amount of energy from Iran, and it has just made some big investments there in some of its oil fields. Energy is a big priority for the Chinese government and it doesn’t want to alienate a big supplier. This means it has pretty clear political interests with the United States, but pretty clear economic interests with Iran. It’s torn between the ‘head’ of economy and the ‘heart’ of politics.
I think it also doesn’t like to be isolated politically, and if Russia, as another member of the Permanent Five (members of the UN Security Council), is also going to support sanctions, which it seems to hint at, then my hunch is China will want to keep a low profile and not be dragged in. Maybe it will abstain rather than exercising its veto power.
So I think China will leave it until the last moment before it declares its hand, and Iran will try and tempt it into a position in which China is the leader of some sort of developing world group that breaks with America. But at the end of the day, this isn’t anywhere near as enticing as staying on side with the Americans on this and getting benefits elsewhere.
More generally, China has come in for some criticism for failing to play a constructive international role not just on Iran but also, for example, over climate change. Is such criticism fair and how much potential is there for China to become the ‘team player’ some in the West believe it should be?
China has a completely ambiguous image. On the one hand, it’s a developing country, I think 115th in terms of world per capita GDP—it ranks below Namibia for example—and yet, it’s the world’s second largest economy, probably overtaking Japan this year. China has about 7 percent to 8 percent of global GDP; I think the United States stands at about 20 percent, while the EU is at about 22 percent. So China is big and also poor—the world’s first rich poor country. It’s an extraordinary combination.
The parameters of Chinese foreign affairs thinking since the 1980s have been ‘Tao Guang Yang Hui’—keep a low profile and build up our capacity. This is what the Paramount Leader Deng Xiaoping apparently said then, and China has stuck with that. It’s tried to build up its economy, with big GDP growth rates every year. And it has also tried not to assert itself internationally. But I think it’s going to be really tough to continue that.