Following is a guest entry by The Diplomat contributor and Iran analyst Meir Javedanfar, who looks at the implications for China of its policy toward Iran.
The recent Washington Post report that Chinese companies are breaking UN sanctions by selling equipment to Iran for its nuclear and missile programme sent shockwaves through the international community.
According to the article, the equipment sold includes high-quality carbon fibre that Iran started to use around four years ago to improve the performance of its centrifuges and missile production, and it therefore seems extremely unlikely that the Chinese government wouldn't have been aware of such dealings by Chinese companies.
As an emerging superpower, China has been actively involved in spreading its economic, and in some cases military, influence around the globe. Its ‘string of pearls’ naval policy is one such example, with its developing of ports in the Asian subcontinent in places including Pakistan and Bangladesh aimed at serving the country's growing economic, diplomatic and naval interests.
And as China moves forward with its plans to become a world power, it’s likely to find itself increasingly challenging the United States. The US reaction will be firmer in some places than others. Iran is one such area—the US government has spent a lot of time and effort putting together a strong international coalition against the Iranian government at the United Nations and is loath to see it undermined.
And right now there’s a domestic angle in the US too. Many Americans are concerned about the prospect of a nuclear Iran, and so any action that might indicate a lack of resolve on the part of the US government in trying to stop Iran from getting its hands on a bomb could cost the president and his party crucial votes in next week's mid-terms.
The illicit trade by Chinese companies with Iran could also strain China's relationship with Russia, as the Russian government has no desire to see Iran become a nuclear power. Indeed, Russia has never wanted this, as a nuclear Iran would provide a challenge on Russia's southern border. Moscow's determination to stop Iran from building a bomb was recently demonstrated to the Iranian leadership when Russia banned the sale of S-300 missiles to the Islamic Republic and refused entry to Iranian nuclear scientists. That China’s been caught selling material used for Iran's nuclear and missile programme is only likely to create anger and frustration in Moscow.
And these are sensitive times for China for other, more immediate reasons too. North Korea, which sits on China's border, is one issue. And domestically its human rights record has been thrown into the spotlight after this year's Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to a jailed Chinese dissident. Defending Iran, which is relatively low on the list of Chinese strategic interests, risks becoming a damaging distraction that will test Western patience and risks undermining relations on other issues.
In the long run, China depends on the Middle East as an important source of energy and so needs regional stability in order to ensure stable prices for its gas and oil supplies. A nuclear Iran, which would likely become more aggressive in its foreign policy, is likely to push up energy prices, meaning higher costs for the Chinese economy. This would hurt not only China's economic interests, but its military ambitions as well. After all, China's plans to expand its navy and modernize its air force depend heavily on the well-being of its economy and higher energy prices will make it more difficult for China to afford the growth of its all important military muscle.
Although the Chinese government has reiterated its commitment to implementing UN sanctions against Iran, such words need to be followed by action. This isn’t just for the sake of the international community—it's also in China's own long-term interests.
Beijing must give up on the temptation of making quick and easy money by breaking UN sanctions against Iran. If it doesn't, it will very likely find that its current Iran policy is a strategic own goal.