BEIJING — As world powers wrangle this month at the United Nations about how to handle Iran's nuclear plans, China is attempting to balance its thirst for Iranian oil and natural gas with its ambition to be a diplomatic heavyweight.
Tough sanctions against Iran could have serious economic consequences for China, one of the five veto-wielding permanent members of the U.N. Security Council. Any significant disruption of China's oil and gas supplies, coupled with setbacks to the country's development deals in those sectors, could hamper Beijing's scramble to ensure that its booming economic growth keeps pace with the rising expectations of its people.
China, the world's second-largest consumer of oil, gets about 11 percent of its oil imports from Iran and has signed billions of dollars in contracts for Iranian oil and gas projects. The Financial Times recently estimated that Beijing is now Tehran's largest trading partner.
However, China has left no doubt that it also wants to be considered a major player in crucial world issues such as stopping nuclear proliferation in Iran and elsewhere. Beijing's rulers have signaled their willingness to juggle hot-button domestic concerns such as Taiwan and Tibet, which they sometimes use to stir anti-Western sentiment, with their growing attention to international strategy.
An indication of a shift in emphasis came earlier this year. At the end of January, the U.S. government announced more than $6 billion in planned arms sales to independently ruled Taiwan, a move that infuriated Beijing, which considers the island part of China. About three weeks later, President Barack Obama gave the Dalai Lama — whom Beijing considers a separatist leader, if not an enemy of the state — a White House audience. The two moves upset the Chinese leadership and led to speculation that China would retaliate by not sending President Hu Jintao to a nuclear summit in Washington in April.
When the summit began, however, after a decision by the Obama administration to refrain from labeling China a currency manipulator, Hu was in attendance, ready to talk about Iran.
"The Dalai Lama is a regional issue . . . whereas the Iranian nuclear issue can only be solved on the international stage," said Yin Gang, a senior analyst at the government's Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. "If (China) does not go to the nuclear summit only because of the Dalai Lama or weapons sales to Taiwan, the whole world would not be pleased with us. The Chinese image would not be of a big power, but a young boy."
It was a telling decision, said Kenneth Lieberthal, the director of the John L. Thornton China Center at The Brookings Institution, a center-left Washington policy research organization.
China "has come to be seen as a global player and not just a regional player," he said in a phone interview. Lieberthal recently wrote of China's standing that, "I think that Beijing has been somewhat startled at the rapidity with which its global position has strengthened. . . . China is just beginning to develop the posture it will want to take on major global issues."
It's a posture that shifts between a willingness to listen to the United States and deep resentment of America's role as the world's sole superpower.
While no one knows how big the Chinese economy will grow — it was the world's third-largest last year and is expected to move up a notch soon — Beijing's Iran dilemma has made it clear that some of China's goals increasingly will intersect with some of America's.
Li Guofu, the director of Middle East studies at a Foreign Ministry policy institute in Beijing, recently said that China has essentially the same position as the United States on Iran, which is that the country shouldn't be allowed to develop a nuclear weapons program.
Like many Chinese, though, he questioned the usefulness of imposing a fourth set of sanctions on Iran, noting that it's continued to enrich uranium despite three prior rounds.
A few minutes later, Li asked why Israel, a U.S. ally that many suspect would attack Iran before allowing it to have a nuclear weapon, has been allowed to amass a nuclear arsenal.
"The whole key here is whether you are an American ally or not. If you are an American ally, everything is solved. If not, then everything is a problem," said Li, his voice rising in irritation. "Don't talk about any treaties, don't talk about any rules, it's, 'If I trust you there's no problem.' "
To convince the Chinese government of the need for stricter sanctions on Iran, there's been a flurry of diplomatic effort by American and Israeli delegations, aided by other Western nations and Arab Middle Eastern countries that are worried about a nuclear-armed Iran. (The Israeli Embassy in Beijing wouldn't comment, nor would the Israeli Foreign Ministry.)
The Israelis argue that there's convincing proof that Iran is moving toward nuclear arms. Ma Xiaolin, a Middle East analyst in Beijing who's attended talks with high-ranking Israeli officials, said the message was usually the same: "It was, 'Iran is the biggest threat in the Middle East and the world.' "
The Obama administration has sought to convince Beijing that an Iranian nuclear weapon would be disastrous for the Middle East, and it's raised the specter of an Israeli military strike on Iran that Washington might be powerless to stop.
"Potential scenarios that would be destabilizing to the region were discussed" last fall, when two senior National Security Council officials, Dennis Ross and Jeff Bader, traveled to Beijing before Obama’s trip there, a senior U.S. official told McClatchy, speaking only on the condition of anonymity in order to discuss diplomatic exchanges. "It was presented pretty starkly, the potential consequences of what could happen."
Part of the message, the official said, was a warning about what a conflict over Iran's nuclear program could do to Persian Gulf oil flows, on which China depends heavily.
The Americans also offered a carrot, said Ma, the analyst and former Chinese state media senior Middle East correspondent.
"High-ranking U.S. officials have been telling the Chinese government that if the Chinese government supports sanctions against Iran, the oil that has been supplied to China from Iran will be replaced by oil from other countries in the Middle East," he said.
The Saudi government news service said in March that officials there denied working with the U.S. to pressure China about Iran sanctions.
The message from the West and its allies is clear, however: China should support sanctions if it wants to avoid upheaval in the Middle East.
For the Chinese, though, where many of those conversations are taking place is also important: The world is coming to Beijing to make its case.
Warren P. Strobel in Washington contributed to this article.
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