Beijing plays by international rules, but on its own terms

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 20 September, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 20 September, 2011, 12:00am

Multilateral sanctions were a rarity until the 1990s and it has taken time for Beijing to support the trend. China is now playing in the spirit of the new rules of the game - including penalising its oil-rich ally, Iran - but keeping it quiet. Being a responsible member of international society traditionally meant adhering to the now outmoded principle of non-intervention in other nations' affairs.

But during the period when Dengism led China towards embracing international society, new requirements for gaining international acceptance were taking shape. These new norms became central to the Western-dominated international agenda. Nuclear proliferation became an elevated issue and interference in the affairs of sovereign states became the norm - including economic sanctions against transgressors.

Of course, China's qualms are logical - it does not want to invite meddling in its own affairs. For this reason, China's decision not to veto the UN Security Council approval for action against Muammar Gaddafi's Libya surprised many. With the end of the cold war and the greater possibility of consensus-building within international institutions, economic sanctions became in vogue. Yet it's only in the last five years that China has shown interest in the new rules.

Following decades of sitting conspicuously on the sidelines, from 2006 onwards China began quietly supporting a series of sanctions against both North Korea and Iran.

Last week, the International Atomic Energy Agency's board of governors met in Vienna, where director general Yukiya Amano stated for the first time that he was 'increasingly concerned' about the possible military bearing of Iran's nuclear programme. Further action is needed by the international community - and China is the linchpin. Western businesses bailed out of Iran decades ago, due to domestic instability and international pressure, and Chinese energy firms have been bolstering the Iranian economy ever since.

Although Beijing follows UN resolutions aimed at restricting Tehran's nuclear programme - resolutions which do not explicitly outlaw energy investments - the US, European Union and others have gone further, curtailing their trade with Iran across the board. China doesn't value sanctions - as the Chinese saying goes, 'the powerful get away with arson, but the weak are not allowed to have a light at home' - but it is looking to avoid confrontation. Thus, China is quietly renewing its efforts at international co-operation, such as through bridge-mending rhetoric regarding the South China Sea.

On Iran, more definite action is feasible as it is not such a central interest for China. To the frustration of Iranians, and Chinese nationalists in the know, China is slowing the pace of its investments in Iran - a move Washington has long called for. Election year looms large in the US and the embattled Obama administration is under political pressure to take a firmer line not only against Tehran but also against Chinese firms trading with Iran.

China's officials privately draw the attention of American counterparts to their consciously unfulfilled contracts and deliberately overlooked new opportunities - in return for US inaction against Chinese companies for their past investments in Iran. Hence, Chinese energy firms are on a 'go-slow' - not that Beijing will declare as much.

As a senior US congressional aide told Reuters recently: 'The Chinese are quietly taking credit with US officials for being co-operative' on Iran. 'I really date it back to mid-to-late 2010', said the aide, 'when they began to signal to us very clearly: 'We can't say it publicly, but you will notice that we're not proceeding with these new contracts'.'

Chinese nationalists expect to see China rising unwaveringly - not kowtowing to Western rules. So while international society's most valuable recruit is quietly playing ball in Iran, there's no need to blow the whistle. Paul Letters is a writer and commentator