Friday, September 16, 2005

Why China's Not Backing Bush on Iran

TIME's Beijing bureau chief Matthew Forney explains President Hu's position on two nuclear showdowns:

President Hu Jintao's talks with President Bush this week have shown just how far apart the two countries remain on issues dear to Washington — most significantly, on the goal of depriving "Axis of Evil" states of nuclear programs.

...No one disputes that North Korea needs an energy source — oil, nuclear, something — to address a shortage that causes regular blackouts, even in the capital. An oil-rich country like Iran has a tougher time making a case for a nuclear energy program, according to President Bush, and he wants China's support in pressuring Iran to surrender its nuclear ambitions. Specifically, he wants President Hu to support his efforts next week to have the UN's nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency, refer Iran to the Security Council over failure to disclose aspects of its nuclear program. That's a little like asking the glue factory manager to punish the guy who shoots horses: China imports roughly half of the 6.7 million barrels of oil it uses every day, and Iran is one of its biggest suppliers. China feels little threat from Iran's nuclear program, but UN sanctions against Iran could cause Beijing a great deal of discomfort. As a permanent member of the Security Council, China can use its veto to prevent sanctions against Iran, but it would rather not call so much attention to itself. Far better to keep the issue out of the Security Council altogether.

Mr. Hu may also be thinking in terms of payback. Remember just a few months ago, when China's state-run oil company, CNOOC, bid to buy California-based Unocal? Capitol Hill went crazy with talk that China was muscling in on America's strategic interests. China's leaders were baffled by all the politicking: CNOOC made a pretty good offer, they thought; Chevron wound up bidding less but still winning the deal. So Mr. Hu is in no mood to hear Mr. Bush talk about how China should use its leverage against Iran.