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The IAEA Iran report: China's manoeuvres

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COMMENTS

10 November 2011 17:19

Simone van Nieuwenhuizen is a Lowy Institute intern who recently completed a University of Sydney degree with majors in Chinese Studies and Arabic & Islamic Studies. All translations of Chinese-language articles referenced here are her own.

For the US and Israel, this week's IAEA report on Iran's nuclear program, serves to confirm their fears and suspicions that the Islamic Republic has been secretly developing technology for the deployment of nuclear weapons. The US responded to the report with alarm, calling for tougher sanctions against Iran. Before the report was even released, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Defence Minister Ehud Barak went a step further, supporting a pre-emptive attack against Iran.

China, however, has adopted a far more cautious and diplomatic approach to the IAEA report, as it finds itself in a rather difficult position. On the one hand, as a permanent member of the Security Council and a member of the Six-Party Talks, it has come under growing pressure from the international community to play a greater role in resolving the Iranian nuclear issue. Since it vetoed the UN resolution on Syria last month, the world has been paying close attention to how China will respond.

On the other hand, China's strong economic relationship with Iran means Beijing is worried about any rash decisions that may be made by the US and Israel in an attempt to deter Iran from continuing its nuclear program.

Understandably so, since China has benefited greatly from international sanctions against Iran. Last year, Iran was China's third largest oil supplier after Saudi Arabia and Angola. Any UN resolutions or military action that would affect China's lucrative trade deals with Iran would have palpable effects on the country's economy.

On the surface, China's official position on the issue is clear and simple.

In 2006, when the first UN Security Council sanctions against Iran were imposed, China's then Permanent Representative to the UN office in Vienna, Wu Hailong, asserted that 'China has, does, and always will advocate diplomatic discussion as the path to a proper resolution of the Iranian nuclear issue.'

Statements by China's Foreign Ministry in the months leading up to the release of today's report repeat the same words. On 7 September, China's permanent representative to the UN, Ambassador Li Baodong, reiterated that 'China believes, and has always believed, that as a signatory to the NPT, Iran enjoys the right to the peaceful use of nuclear energy. At the same time, Iran should comply with its international obligations. China hopes that Iran and the IAEA will maintain and improve dialogue, and cooperate to resolve their unsolved problems.'

Digging a little deeper, the complexity of China's diplomatic manoeuvres becomes evident. In an exception to the cautious diplomacy reflected in most Chinese news sources, one Xinhua article outlined China and Russia's unsuccessful behind-the-scenes negotiations with IAEA Director-General Yukiya Amano in late October to postpone, or even cancel, the publication of the report.

Apparently, in a diplomatic message to Amano, Russian and Chinese officials expressed their opposition to the IAEA's 'unjustifiable actions' and advised the organisation to 'tread carefully' in order to avoid 'forcing Iran into a corner'. The article went on to say: 'China and Russia believe that by releasing this report about the Iranian nuclear issue, the IAEA will destroy any chance of solving the problem through diplomatic means.'

Interestingly, such scathing criticisms of the report itself were nowhere to be found in the Chinese-language press yesterday or today. In a statement issued yesterday, Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei reaffirmed China's opposition to the proliferation of nuclear weapons and stated that it does not condone the development of nuclear weapons in any Middle Eastern state, once again advocating a diplomatic solution to the problem, preferably through talks between Iran and six world powers.

China's official press agency, Xinhua, has turned its attention toward international responses to the report. In particular, it criticised the Israeli threat of a military strike, claiming in the event of any attack, Iran would retaliate by striking American and Israeli bases in the Persian Gulf, thereby creating regional conflict that would have 'unfathomable consequences'. Whilst state media acknowledges China has 'taken note' of the IAEA report, it has neither expressed condemnation of its release, like Russia, nor has it voiced explicit opposition to Iran's nuclear program.

While its next diplomatic manoeuvre may not be entirely clear, by temporarily diverting attention away from its own response, China has bought time to consider the next step.

Photo by Flickr user SpAvAAi.

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