Friday, January 20, 2006

Beijing's Nuclear Test

The Financial Times: Editorial Comment
Iran's decision to defy western advice and press ahead with a uranium enrichment programme that could provide the fissile material for nuclear weapons is turning into an important test of China's behaviour as a rising world power.

Although Russia is also reluctant to apply pressure on Tehran, it is China that is now the greatest obstacle to an international consensus on resolving the crisis. READ MORE

There is particular concern over how Beijing will use its influence in the UN Security Council, where it is one of the five veto-wielding permanent members along with the US, Britain, France and Russia. Representatives of the five met in London this week together with German officials to try to forge a common stand ahead of an emergency board meeting of the International Atomic Energy Agency to be called by the Europeans next month.

For the good of the Middle East and for the sake of its own reputation, China must join the other major powers in agreeing to have the IAEA refer Iran to the Security Council for further action, including possible sanctions.

Chinese leaders are said to face an agonising choice between maintaining good relations with the US and preserving their access to Iran, one of their most important suppliers of the oil and gas imported in increasing quantities to fuel the Chinese industrial revolution.

But the choice is neither so simple nor so agonising. The purpose of western pressure is not to impose sanctions on Iran and block its energy exports - which would harm western as well as Chinese interests and hurt the world economy. It is to prevent the development of Iranian nuclear weapons, a goal best achieved with the unequivocal support of Moscow and Beijing.

The signs suggest that Chinese leaders, who have no more sympathy for Islamic extremists than George W. Bush or Russia's Vladimir Putin, are in a quandary. Wang Guangya, China's ambassador to the UN, said last week that referring Iran to the Security Council might "complicate" matters by hardening positions. Yet members of a US congressional group that has just visited China say they were told by Wu Bangguo, a senior Communist leader, that China opposed the idea of a nuclear-armed Iran and wanted the Iranians back at the negotiating table.

Beijing has already earned the gratitude of the US for hosting talks on North Korea, although the situations differ because Pyongyang boasts of nuclear weapons it may not have whereas Tehran denies the military ambitions of which it is suspected.

There will be times when China will be right to disagree with the US on proliferation issues but the dispute with Iran is not such an occasion. The days of China's low profile in the Security Council are coming to an end as the country's economic might and diplomatic influence grow. Great power status means shouldering the international responsibilities that go with it.