China Power

China in Middle of Israel, Iran

China is caught in the diplomatic middle between Israel and Iran. Neither is likely to completely sway Beijing.

Those closely watching the Iranian nuclear issue may have noticed something interesting – China has become caught in the diplomatic middle between Israel and Iran. This fact underscores the growing importance of China on the international stage, and also highlights the growing importance of energy resources in international relations.

After indications that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was preparing to visit China next month, the Chinese Foreign Ministry issued a statement saying that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad would be visiting China in early June. At the time of me writing this, China’s Foreign Ministry had yet to finalize Netanyahu’s visit. It can only be imagined how he’ll feel visiting so soon after Ahmadinejad.

Since becoming president, Ahmadinejad has made a couple of visits to China for meetings and events, and next month’s trip will be for the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. Such visits are quite different from official bilateral trips. Why Iran's leader has preferred this approach isn’t altogether clear, although China might be reluctant to host such a visit over concerns that it might appear to be too close to Iran.

Regardless, there’s no doubt that Ahmadinejad’s visit to China will include discussion of the Iranian nuclear issue, and he will likely be looking for more and continued support from Beijing. And he will also likely be carrying with him reassurances for China that Iran will continue to supply crude oil as necessary. Certainly, China’s energy hungry economy means that Chinese leaders aren’t willing to embrace the tougher Western sanctions aimed at Tehran’s energy sector, much less back disruptive military action.

But Israel is also increasingly seeing relations with China as important, and there are growing signs that bilateral ties are improving. Since the start of this year, a number of Israeli ministers, including Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, have visited China. And, as can be expected during Ahmadinejad’s visit, the Iran nuclear issue will have been high on the agenda of visiting Israeli officials.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

So China is viewed favourably by both Iran and Israel, leaving Beijing with a difficult balancing act. During a meeting between Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping and a senior Israeli official in March, Xi reportedly emphasized that China understood Israel’s concerns on the Iranian nuclear issue, and he stressed that the problem should be resolved by diplomacy. This remark wasn’t well reported in the Chinese Foreign Ministry’s English and Chinese press releases, but it was covered by Israeli and international media.

This was interesting, and perhaps reflects China’s desire not to be seen to be too “understanding” of Israel’s position out of fears of upsetting Tehran. And yet if China fails to offer Israel some diplomatic comfort, it risks alienating itself in the eyes of other world powers.

Of course, many inside and outside China recognize that it supports Iran largely for economic reasons, although it is also happy to use Iran as a means for challenging the West, despite cutting its imports of Iranian oil in recent months. Complicating all this is the fact that China not only needs Iran’s oil, but requires Israeli technology, too.

This means that despite the attention that will inevitably be focused on the visits of the Israeli and Iranian leaders, neither side is likely to be able to secure a clear breakthrough in wooing China to its side.

With China’s new leadership set to take over later this year, changes to China’s domestic policies are likely. Domestic pressures are forcing the country to become more open and democratic, something that will ultimately have an impact on foreign policy. It will be interesting to see how this might affect the Iran nuclear issue specifically, and ties with Tehran and Israel more generally.