Vance Serchuk: There is anxiety that China continues to do business in Iran
How prominent is China’s role in Middle East policy issues?
China is still largely a peripheral player when it comes to the Middle East. On many of the major issues that are at play there, I wouldn’t say that China is necessarily in a driving role. That being said, there clearly are some issues where China is playing a very important role. One example is the Iranian nuclear program where China’s cooperation on the UN Security Council and the passage of sanctions in 2010 is obviously quite significant. Then more broadly the issue of China’s economic relationship with Iran has moved to being a central concern for many in the United States and the broader international community. As European and other Asian companies have backed away from Iran because of its illicit nuclear activities, there’s a perception that China has continued to do a lot of significant business with Iran. Particularly there is a concern that it may be involved in the energy sector, which is one of the areas that the United States has unilaterally sanctioned.
Another area where China is obviously significant is as a member of the UN Security Council. As issues related to the Arab Spring come before the council, China de facto has a say. That’s obviously played out first in the case of Libya, where China supported UN Security Council resolution 1970 and abstained on 1973. It’ll also play out as we look at what’s happening in Syria.
How cooperative is China being in respect to Iran’s nuclear weapons program?
This is an area where, frankly, there’s a great deal of concern. On the positive side of the ledger, China did not veto the Security Council resolution 1929, passed by the UN last year, which was the latest round of sanctions. China also acquiesced to previous rounds of sanctions against Iran because of its noncooperation with the IAEA [International Atomic Energy Agency] and the questions associated with its nuclear program.
But at the same time I think there is a great deal of anxiety that while other companies from other parts of the world have backed away from Iran because of its illicit conduct also because of obviously its support for terrorism in the region and its horrific human rights record, particularly since the 2009 election, that China has continued to do a fair amount of business with Iran. You will hear from some that China has exercised a certain restraint. It has not dramatically and very visibly escalated the business that it could be doing with Iran, but in general there still is a perception that there’s too much going on there.
I was recently in a meeting with an official from an allied country who works on the Iran issue, and I asked what are your priorities, what are your concerns. And he said “Well, issue number one, two and three is China, China and China.” I don’t think that would have been the case 5 or 10 years ago. And that reflects the rising economic role of China with regard to Iran. You just look at the trade flows – It’s gone down dramatically for Europe, and it’s gone up dramatically for China.
How will a successful Arab Spring impact China’s presence in the region?
Well obviously we hope that the Arab spring will be successful and that will mean governments in the region that reflect the will of their people, that respect human rights, that are democratically elected. That’s the hope. We’ll see what actually plays out. To quote a great Chinese thinker – Zhou Enlai - it’s too soon to tell.
It’s hard to predict what a successful Arab spring would mean for China. But in general, if you have governments in the region that are going to be supportive of and respectful of human rights and democratic norms, and that are also going to consequently be more concerned about democratic norms globally, then that may make for a more challenging environment for China. With that being said, we’re a long way from there.
It’s also entirely possible that some of the governments we see emerge from the Arab Spring are going to be more populist, are going to at times probably, particularly in countries where the old regime had a close relationship to the United States and to the West, they may play on some anti-Western sentiment that exists. And that could create an environment which is more conducive for China. So, as they say, it’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future.