You have to hand it the folks at China's Foreign Ministry. As well as anyone on the planet, they have learned over the years how to craft sentences that reach the summit of diplomatic obfuscation. So it was on Feb. 6, when the Foreign Minister representing this century's ascendant power addressed a gathering that's a blast from the past: the Munich Security Conference, a 46-year-old annual gabfest that used to be populated by Western Europeans and Americans obsessed with plugging the Fulda Gap. Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi was there this year, and he knew there was no chance he could avoid the single most important issue that leaders in the here and now confront: not Internet censorship in China, not U.S. weapons sales to Taiwan. No, the question of the day is whether the Islamic Republic of Iran will be permitted to develop nuclear weapons while the rest of the world stands around and chats about it. Here's what Yang told the group in Munich: "The parties concerned should, with the overall and long-term interests in mind, step up diplomatic efforts, stay patient and adopt a more flexible, pragmatic and proactive policy. The purpose is to seek a comprehensive, long-term and proper solution through dialogue and negotiations.''
The world's nuclear standoff with Iran is ratcheting ever upward. On Feb. 8, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (no diplomat he) matter-of-factly announced that Iran would soon begin enriching uranium for use in a "medical reactor." That means China will have to answer the central question that confronts it, which was embedded within Yang's diplo-speak: What actually is China's long-term interest in Iran?
Beijing has what it used to call "core interests" issues that stand above and beyond the rest. Taiwan is one. Another a recent product of its economic surge is long-term access to the oil, gas and minerals needed to fuel the country's growth for decades to come. Iran, from whom Beijing now buys a tick over 400,000 barrels a day (about 14% of China's total oil imports), is clearly part of that future. But U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently called out Beijing in public to get off the fence and sign on to new, tougher sanctions against Tehran at the U.N. In so doing, she used China's dependence on oil from the Persian Gulf as a reason not to appease the mullahs, but to press them: "China will be under a lot of pressure to recognize the destabilizing impact that a nuclear-armed Iran would have in the Gulf, from which they receive a significant percentage of their oil supply."
Beijing has already decided, apparently, that a North Korea with nukes is less destabilizing than a North Korea in chaos, with tens of thousands of impoverished souls pouring across its border into China. But Beijing knows no one is going to attack North Korea knows that in its heart and soul. It knows no such thing about Iran. Prior to Barack Obama's summit meeting with Hu Jintao last year, two U.S. diplomats quietly slipped into Beijing and, in secret, reinforced the obvious: There's this other country in the region called Israel and, well, we're just not sure what they might do.
Whether the U.S. shared information about what it knows about possible Israeli planning for a strike against Tehran's nuclear facilities is not known. What's known is that Beijing appeared to be unmoved by what it was told. Yang's speech earlier this month and several public statements by other Chinese officials similar to it still show little appetite in Beijing for U.N.-induced sanctions that might affect Iran's oil and gas industry.
But when Clinton went public in isolating Beijing earlier this month, it was clear the diplomatic game had changed, and not in China's favor. Beijing had always had a partner in pushing back against the West's desire for tough sanctions against Iran: Moscow. The Russians don't need Tehran's oil and gas, but they have significant economic interests in Iran, and Vladimir Putin, much more than Hu Jintao & Co., had very much been in the business of sticking a thumb in the eye of the U.S. whenever he could (the default position of pretty much any ex-KGB officer worth his salt).
But the clear indication now is that the Russians will sign on for a U.S. push toward tougher sanctions if true, a major dividend for Obama's decision to shelve a missile-defense program in Eastern Europe. On Feb. 9, Nikolai Patrushev, secretary of Russia's Presidential Security Council, said Iran's "actions ... raise doubts in other countries and those doubts are quite valid." This might leave Beijing in a place it can hardly want to be: isolated on the Security Council.
At the U.N., the language will be ever so polite, but the message now to Beijing could well be: The only thing that may stand between an eventual Israeli air strike and the resulting chaos in the Persian Gulf is you. If you alone veto sanctions against Iran, God help us all.
So just how does China define its "overall and long-term interests'' in Iran? We're about to find out.