Despite continued attempts to reach a comprehensive deal on Iran’s nuclear program, the new deadlines for a framework agreement by March 2015 and a final long-term arrangement by the end of June 2015 are fast approaching. A round of talks in Geneva in January 2015 failed to achieve a breakthrough and, with heightened efforts to derail the talks by hardliners in several key countries, the prospects for a timely deal have become increasingly uncertain.

Recent rounds of Iranian negotiations, however, have received relatively little attention in China. This muted reaction has occurred even though Beijing is one of the few players directly involved in the discussions between Iran and the so-called P5+1 group (the United States, Russia, the United Kingdom, France, China, and Germany). Moreover, this lack of attention stands in stark contrast to the significant interest that Beijing has in the ultimate outcome of the talks.

Tong Zhao
Tong Zhao is a senior fellow in Carnegie’s Nuclear Policy Program.
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China’s interests in the negotiations extend from securing critical oil supplies to combating extremism and promoting regional economic and trade initiatives. To help safeguard these interests and enhance the Middle East’s economic stability and regional security, China should consider adopting a more proactive stance toward the discussions—one guided by the principles of consistency and mutual benefit.

Implications for China’s Nonproliferation Policy

The results of the negotiations with Iran will have implications for the international standards that govern nuclear programs in other non-nuclear-weapon states. And, like Iran’s program, many of these other efforts have—or will have—important security ramifications for China.

The crisis over what Western powers say is Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons arose partly because of gaps in the existing international nonproliferation regime. The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) prohibits the manufacture or acquisition of nuclear weapons by non-nuclear-weapon states. But the treaty also recognizes the right of all state parties to develop nuclear programs for peaceful purposes, and it does not clearly differentiate peaceful nuclear activities from military ones. Gray areas include uranium enrichment, centrifuge manufacturing, spent fuel reprocessing, and some facets of research and development, which all have applications for both civilian programs and the design of nuclear weapons.

The legality of these dual-use activities is not explicitly addressed in the NPT. Such ambiguity contributes to the politicization of international discussions of Iran’s nuclear program, as well as the nuclear programs of Syria, Japan, South Korea, Brazil, and other countries.

Concerns over the gray areas in Iran’s nuclear program are a central element of the ongoing discussions. Disputes over the size and scope of Iran’s enrichment program, for example, stood in the way of progress during talks in Geneva in January 2015. The goal of the P5+1 is to craft a set of rules to ensure that Iran cannot use its civilian nuclear program as a cover to acquire the technical capability to build nuclear weapons. No such principles have yet been agreed to or internationally accepted. When rules are unclear and states have differing threat perceptions, it is not surprising that discussion can become politicized, making it far more difficult to reach agreement on how to address proliferation concerns.

The establishment of such guidelines for Iran’s nuclear program would have far-reaching implications for China. The guidelines could become part of an implicit international standard that could be adapted and applied to other non-nuclear-weapon states that may seek to possess dual-use nuclear capabilities.

Japan is just one example of a state that concerns China. Japan’s advanced nuclear fuel cycle technology; its huge stockpile of fissile materials, which could be used in weapons; and high-profile rhetoric from influential members of Japan’s ruling party about a virtual nuclear capability all unnerve China greatly. Looking into the future, additional countries—some of which may have poorer relations with China—may move closer to the nuclear threshold. Vietnam, for instance, is building an active nuclear program, and it is possible that the Philippines may do the same.

China faces the pressure of maintaining a principled and consistent nonproliferation policy. Beijing has been critical of the U.S. handling of nuclear programs in the Middle East; some have accused Washington of applying a double standard, allowing Israel to possess nuclear weapons while prohibiting Iran from conducting enrichment and even engaging in operations that many thought were aimed at regime change in Iraq, Libya, and Syria, countries which were believed to have explored nuclear weapon options. This inconsistency has led many Chinese analysts to question U.S. objectives and intentions.

China should heed this lesson for its own foreign policy. The country should contribute substantively to the Iranian nuclear negotiations because the rules set up in this case could someday be applied should Beijing seek to address its own proliferation concerns about other countries. 

China and the Middle East

For Beijing, a successful outcome to the Iran talks would permit Tehran to pursue nuclear energy programs, while allowing the international community to verify that the country is not pursuing nuclear weapons. But China’s interests in a peaceful resolution of the crisis go much broader and deeper than many analysts have suggested.

China wants to protect the oil it receives from Iran, which is currently China’s third largest supplier. Beijing would also like to see a reduction in tensions between Iran and the West and the lifting of economic sanctions on Iran, which have caused Chinese companies with investments in Iran to suffer unprecedented losses.

But China’s interests in a stable Iran and a peaceful Middle East extend far beyond securing oil supplies and ensuring sanctions relief. Beijing is actively pursuing the so-called One Belt, One Road initiative—including both the twenty-first-century Maritime Silk Road and the Silk Road Economic Belt—which is intended to become a driving force for China’s continued economic growth into the next decade and even further into the future. This plan is partially connected to the Grand Western Development Program under former Chinese president Jiang Zemin that sought to sustain China’s economic growth by opening up and investing in the western part of the country. As envisioned by President Xi Jinping, One Belt, One Road will create a promising economic corridor stretching across the Eurasian continent. 

This is one of the most important economic plans in modern Chinese history, and it is so critical to the country’s overall economy that it was initiated and is being promoted by the most senior members of the Chinese leadership. But its ultimate success will hinge on the stability of the Middle East in general and that of Iran in particular. Sitting at the western intersection of the One Belt and the One Road, the Middle East is “going to be an important region to implement” the initiative and “may become one of the earliest regions to see the results,” according to China’s special envoy for the Middle East, Gong Xiaosheng.

Reality may thwart ambition, however, if political tensions over Iran’s nuclear program continue to unsettle the region, or worse, if the negotiations fail and a military strike on Iran is ever carried out. Conversely, peaceful resolution of the Iranian nuclear crisis could be a very positive first step toward resolving broader problems in the Middle East, with the focus potentially shifting next to assembling a unified front against the Islamic State and improving the prospects for both stabilizing Iraq and resolving the Syrian crisis. All of these goals are in Beijing’s interest at the strategic level.

Foreign policy in general has shifted under President Xi’s leadership from taoguang yanghui (keeping a low profile) to fenfa youwei (striving for achievement). Recognizing the significance of building a mutually beneficial relationship with Middle Eastern states, China would like to play a more important role in the region itself. The question is how.

Chinese decisionmakers are very much aware of the complexity of the political divisions among the various regional players, with religious, ethnic, and sectarian struggles all entangled together. This reality has made Chinese leaders hesitant to get involved in the region’s security challenges and more inclined to begin with economic engagement. China is now the top buyer of oil from the Middle East, and Beijing is focused on trade and investment as instruments for strengthening cooperation—and as a means for helping to modernize and diversify the Middle East’s economies. Chinese officials believe that this approach will help put regional development on a more sustainable track and help address the root causes of growing extremism and other security problems.

But focusing on the economic side of the equation may no longer be enough. Some regional states have criticized China’s Middle East policy for being overly profit driven, with little commitment to helping solve regional political and security problems. As the country’s economic footprint in the Middle East continues to expand, China’s overall geopolitical influence is bound to rise accordingly, increasing Beijing’s ability to help solve these problems, whether it wants to or not. China must think about how to use that leverage wisely.

In this regard, contributing to resolving the Iranian nuclear crisis seems like a good opportunity for China to raise its profile and increase its soft power in the region. The leaders of the United States and Iran each face serious domestic constraints and skepticism over key elements of any likely deal, limiting their ability to make additional compromises over the next few months. Given these realities, the prospects of a successful outcome to negotiations are becoming more uncertain, even as the stakes grow higher. Any additional push from other negotiating parties, including China, will be very helpful in moving these delicate talks in the right direction.

U.S.-China Ties

U.S. and Chinese strategic interests in Iran, and in the Middle East more generally, have often been seen as a zero-sum game. It is not uncommon to hear Chinese experts expressing the view that they would like to see the United States continue to be bogged down in the Middle East and hence unable to shift more attention to dealing with China and the Asia-Pacific region.

However, as China’s energy, economic, and other stakes in the Middle East grow rapidly, U.S. and Chinese interests in regional stability are quickly becoming aligned. Working together to promote a final deal on Iran’s nuclear program is a good opportunity for the two countries to demonstrate that—as their top leaders have envisioned—they can indeed place their relationship on a more cooperative footing and achieve mutual benefits in the process. This potential bilateral cooperation also dovetails with the concept of a new type of great power relationship that Xi has articulated. The Chinese leader sees this new relationship as a way to counter predictions of inevitable confrontation between China and the United States and instead foster ties built on mutual respect and benefits.

The Obama administration has expressed a willingness for China to play a bigger role in Middle Eastern security issues. For its part, Beijing is interested in shedding the label of free rider and more actively contributing to peace and stability in the region. But China won’t be able to complete the process overnight. Beijing has generally preferred to take an indirect and gradualist approach toward addressing tough security challenges such as fighting the Islamic State or dispatching troops to stabilize Afghanistan. 

Yet, working on a diplomatic settlement to Iran’s nuclear program is both something that China can firmly commit itself to and something that will bring tremendous political benefits. Given the common interests between the United States and China, this will help set the bilateral relationship on a new path.

With the ongoing proliferation threat in the Middle East, Washington tends to be particularly worried about any Chinese relationship with Iran and other countries in the region. Beijing’s efforts to develop regular military, political, and even economic ties with these countries are often seen as contributing to their proliferation potential and, therefore, as possibly detrimental to U.S. nonproliferation objectives.

But if a comprehensive deal can be reached between the P5+1 countries and Iran, and if Beijing can play a proactive role in this process, the United States may become less concerned about China’s developing relationships with Middle Eastern countries. This is again of high importance to Beijing, whose deepening economic ties to the region make the development of comprehensive relationships inevitable. A shared understanding between Washington and Beijing of China’s future role in the Middle East is an essential element of the new type of great power relationship, and its foundation can be laid through positive interactions during the Iranian nuclear talks.

The Path Forward

At the height of negotiations between the P5+1 countries and Iran in November 2013, President Xi made a phone call to Iranian President Hassan Rouhani to exchange views on substantive issues and to encourage him to agree to the interim deal with world powers that was then being sought. China also raised a five-point proposal at the beginning of the next round of talks in February 2014 to help create a positive political environment for continued discussions. As the talks continue, China should take advantage of its reputation in the region as a neutral broker to substantively engage with other negotiating partners and help narrow the gap in their positions.

China should adopt a more public stance against additional unilateral sanctions under discussion in Washington that could destroy any hope of a final deal. Given Iran’s interest in developing a closer relationship with China, Beijing can also engage bilaterally with Tehran and help underscore the economic and security benefits of reaching a final agreement. Furthermore, China can reassure Iran that Beijing is committed to closer economic and political ties between the two countries, as long as Iran can adequately address the international community’s concerns about its nuclear program.

In addition, China can hold more bilateral talks with Russia, the United States, and EU partners. Given the cool relationship between Moscow and the West at the moment, China can play a unique role in helping to coordinate positions among the P5+1 countries.

China should also consider making greater financial and personnel contributions to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspection team in Iran. According to U.S. officials, Iran agreed in late November 2014 to grant IAEA inspectors greater access to its centrifuge manufacturing facilities, to double the number of IAEA visits, and to allow surprise inspections of suspect sites. To ensure that such arrangements are successfully carried out—which would boost confidence between the IAEA and Iran—more financial and personnel support is needed for the IAEA. A decision by China to provide this assistance would be mutually beneficial. For Iran, Chinese inspectors are sometimes more welcome than their Western colleagues, while for China, such a contribution would enhance its role and influence in the IAEA.

The United States and other P5+1 countries can help China play a more active role in the negotiations by displaying more trust in Beijing and greater willingness to treat China as a true and equal partner. Cooperation should not be defined narrowly as Beijing imposing stricter sanctions or adopting more coercive policies against Tehran. China’s own experience of undergoing serious economic sanctions during the Cold War makes the country much more skeptical of the overall effect of such measures. But Beijing’s reluctance to impose unilateral sanctions should by no means be interpreted as unwillingness to cooperate or a reason to be blamed for a deadlock in negotiations.

At the end of the day, China’s strategic priorities are very much in line with those of its P5+1 partners. It is in everyone’s interest to encourage and help China leverage its increasing influence in the region to attain a peaceful resolution of the Iranian nuclear crisis.