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Under the bus Israel goes . . . .|
When President Obama met with the president of China in Beijing last month, he cautioned that he would not be able to block an Israeli attack against Iran much longer unless there is progress in the attempts to stop Iran’s nuclear program. This warning was intended to persuade China of the urgent need for additional sanctions against Iran. Yet even if the potential success of this warning is questionable, it raises questions about Chinese interests in Iran and the Middle East as a whole, about Israel's place vis-à-vis these interests, and about Jerusalem’s possible influence over Beijing.
Until recently, it was commonplace to assume that Chinese interests in the Middle East, including Iran, lay in guaranteeing its energy supply. The tremendous growth of the Chinese economy has created an ever-growing dependence on imported energy, and in 2008 China became the world’s third largest importer. Of all energy sources outside China, the Middle East plays a major role, as about half of China’s imported oil comes from that region. In light of the expected growth in China’s demand for oil and the anticipated diminishing supply from oil fields elsewhere in the world, the importance of the Middle East to China’s energy market is expected to grow. This may explain China’s interests in fostering relations with the major oil producers in the Middle East and its concern about any move liable to undermine the political and military stability of the region.
Nonetheless, this concern alone cannot explain China’s insistence on defending Iran from tougher international steps, because China reportedly rejected the Saudi offer to supply all its oil needs at low cost as a substitute for Iranian oil should the need arise. Were oil alone the center of China’s interests, it would not matter to China if the source were Iran or Saudi Arabia. Therefore, China must have other interests in Iran and the region.
Generally speaking, one may differentiate four separate issues. The first is China's drive to establish itself internationally as a power offering an alternative agenda to that of the United States. In this context, China is trying to acquire the support of the developing nations, many of which are under American pressure to change their internal and external conduct. China has opposed outside intervention in states' internal matters, and in this sense, a Chinese agreement to sanctions against Iran is tantamount to surrender to an American agenda and abandonment of potential allies.
Second, as part of its efforts to vary its energy sources, China is investing billions of dollars in developing oil infrastructures in various countries in exchange for guaranteed large future oil supplies. China made investments of this type in Iran, and is thus interested in maintaining good relations with the regime that signed these contracts.
Third, in light of forecasts that its dependence on Middle East oil will only grow, and in light of its desire to increase its political influence internationally, China understands that it will not be able to avoid increasing its involvement in the Middle East. Indeed, while China tended (and apparently still tends) to view the Middle East as “the graveyard of superpowers,” it seems that in recent years it is both introducing variety into its regional relations and strengthening its ties with the Middle East: bolstering its diplomatic ties with various rulers, increasing its economic investments and commercial ties in the region, and showing signs of strengthened military ties with various nations, including Iran. Its growing involvement in the region may position it to stand at the head of an anti-American front in the not too distant future, and therefore is better off not being seen as buckling under American dictates.