Recently, the West has been putting tremendous pressure on Iran to curb its nuclear ambitions and its presence in the Strait of Hormuz. Iran has responded negatively to the criticism, intensifying the confrontation and escalating the situation in the Persian Gulf. China, one of Iran’s vital trade partners, faces a tenuous diplomatic quandary.

Maintaining Neutrality

From the beginning, China has preferred to resolve the Iranian nuclear issue through dialogue and negotiation, expressing its desire to negotiate the dilemma within the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) framework. On the one hand, China does not fully support the sanctions that many Western countries have imposed on Iran, nor does it support any use of coercion or forceful intimidation as the conflict intensifies. On the other hand, China is wary of the situation spiraling out of control due to Iran’s insistence on maintaining its nuclear program or its potential blocking of the Strait of Hormuz. In that case, China would perhaps fall more in line with the attitudes of the West on economic sanctions.

Zhao Kejin
Zhao Kejin is an expert on China’s foreign policy and diplomacy. At Carnegie China, he runs a program that examines the development of China’s public diplomacy.
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As it stands, Beijing will not actively oppose sanctions on Iran, but it wants to back neither the Western nor the Iranian camp despite recent attempts by the United States to convince China to change its mind. This has been a dilemma for China—it seeks to avoid confrontation with the United States on this issue but at the same time does not want to join Washington in further sanctioning Iran.

The idea of cooperation with the United States has sparked great debate in China. The degree of cooperation hinges on the benefits that China would realize for consenting. U.S. coercion would only lead Beijing to reject the proposition; a more nuanced courtship of Chinese support would be required. Regardless, China would only yield to playing a supporting role, insisting that the United States take the lead.

If Iran violated international conventions established by the United Nations and the IAEA, China, as a country that sticks to its principles, would take action to reassure the West that it was committed to resolving the situation. In other words, if Iran does cross the line, China would comply with mainstream international protocols. But for the time being, Beijing is maintaining a cautious attitude toward the issue of sanctions, insisting that these measures do not compromise regional stability, harm Chinese interests, or exacerbate Iranian indignation.

China’s Nonalignment Principle

Fundamentally, the reason for a lack of clarity in China’s position on the Iranian issue stems from Deng Xiaoping’s nonalignment strategy established in the 1980s. As Deng said, “We connect with everyone, make friends with everyone, we oppose hegemony and unprovoked invasion. We are fair in words and deeds.” China puts strong emphasis on the unbiased moral role that it exhibits in handling its diplomatic affairs. Not aligning with any country or strategic power has been a long-term diplomatic policy, not only when it comes to Iran but also Libya, Sudan, and Pakistan.

A dark legacy of Western dominance looms largely over the Chinese people, leading to a deep distrust of other nations. If China wants to continue its ascendancy to superpower status, it must rely on itself. It should not align with any other countries to gain strategic political power, thus maintaining a wide and independent diplomatic berth.

In the past, in order to maintain its sovereignty and national security, China associated with the Soviet Union, then switched its alliance to withstand the rising Soviet threat. In the current political climate, China is dissatisfied with the cavalier behavior of the United States. China’s concerns about sovereignty are similar to Iran’s, though not as pressing.

More pressing is the matter of China’s economic growth and domestic development. There is an aspect of relief for China that the United States has become preoccupied with issues like the Iranian situation and has therefore deemphasized its political and security pressure on China’s rise. As long as tensions do not boil over, China can take some comfort in the spotlight shifting to Iran.

Constructive Mediation

Given its rapid economic development and the escalation of the Iranian nuclear issue, China is having a hard time maintaining its nonalignment policy and has less leeway in its diplomatic policy. Currently, China is facing a triple diplomatic challenge on the Iranian issue.

Balancing its interests between Iran and the Western world is the first challenge for China. There is no doubt that China draws great benefit from its relationship with Iran. Not only does it receive 20 percent of Iranian oil exports, but Beijing also invests heavily in Iran and relies on Tehran’s indispensable geographically strategic value as a buffer for western China. As an opponent of the United States, Iran also alleviates the pressure Washington has been putting on China since the United States announced its strategic pivot toward Asia.

Of course, China must maintain its interests in the Western world, which is a major destination for Chinese exports. China is also interested in the expansion of Western technology and promoting exchange with the West in the sociocultural arena. These issues are more fundamental to Chinese interests than ties to Iran, and Beijing must keep an eye on them.

The second challenge is how China can balance its international responsibilities while maintaining its status as a developing country. Western countries have long discriminated against China because of its socialist roots. Compounding that is China’s perceived poor human rights record, persecution of some religions, and suppression of democracy. Because of this, and since China distrusts the West, Beijing emphasizes its connection to the developing world and regards developing countries as strategic anchor points for its diplomacy.

As a developing country, Iran shares the same disgraced history and seeks the same respect from the West. China will not forsake this relationship to please the West nor will it lose face as a leader of the developing world by simply aligning with Iran.

The third challenge is how to maintain a balance between national interests and values. When deciding on a position, China must do its best to present a commanding presence. In the words of Mao Zedong, that means “creating something that is both good by taste and by appearance.”

China opposes Iran producing and maintaining nuclear weapons and supports the establishment of a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East. The lack of Chinese support behind economic sanctions on Iran does not signify that China has placed its trade interest with Iran above its values and principles. China’s position is more nuanced, and it pushes back against the West’s bullying of Iran.

With these three challenges and the escalation of the Iranian nuclear issue in mind, countries are becoming increasingly aware of China’s role as a constructive mediator. Beijing is trying its best to pull the United States and Iran onto the path of peaceful dialogue, mitigating the conflict and both sides’ intense emotions.

As a country with a booming economy and increasingly visible global image, China does not want to see tension and disorder in its region or internationally for that matter. Only in a climate of international order and stability can China maintain the momentum of peaceful development envisioned by Deng Xiaoping—the goal of constructing a moderately developed country and building a moderately prosperous society in all senses. That aspiration is key to understanding the role China is playing in the Iranian issue.

This article was originally published in Chinese in Guoji Xianqu Daobao.