This month, the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) passed a resolution to tighten sanctions on Iran, imposing a ban on arms sales and expanding a freeze on assets of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps in response to the country’s uranium-enrichment activities, which Tehran says are for peaceful purposes but other countries contend are driven by military ambitions.
This means China, as one of the five permanent members of the UNSC as well as a traditional friend of Iran, has acted unusually in casting its vote in favor of this fourth round of UN sanctions.
Li Baodong, the Chinese permanent representative to the United Nations, explained that China’s approval of this resolution “is aimed at bringing Iran back to the negotiation table and activating a new round of diplomatic efforts”. His explanation was echoed by Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang in Beijing, who said the nuclear standoff should be resolved through dialogue and diplomatic means.
However, following the resolution, Iran’s Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki rejected it as illegitimate, maintaining Tehran’s longstanding claim that the country’s nuclear program was entirely peaceful and therefore outside the UNSC’s turf.
Given China’s stance, it seems previously good China-Iran relations have been challenged, as Iran’s top nuclear official Ali Akbar Salehi, head of the Atomic Energy Organization and the country’s vice president, lashed out at Beijing. He said, “It’s [China] showing a behavior that will certainly influence the Islamic world and the minds of Muslims. . . . It will slowly lose its respectable position in the Muslim world and will wake up when it’s too late.”
However, Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad later politely said in Shanghai during a visit to the World Expo 2010, “We have very good relations with China and we have no reason to weaken our relations with China. . . . The problem is the United States.”
No doubt China had a difficult decision to make and it made it reluctantly. It is now widely believed that Beijing wanted to please the US in the hope of receiving some favor from Uncle Sam in return. This could be that pressure is eased on China over its yuan currency, which the US believes is undervalued, and that the US reconsiders its arms-sales policy to Taiwan.
For a long time, China has regarded itself as a leader of the Third World and has often spoken out for the interests of developing countries — economic as well as political. Because of this, China has often abstained in Security Council votes against developing countries.
China voting for sanctions on Iran signals a change in this position on international affairs; it could be a shift caused by the increasing economic interdependence between China and the West.
However, China’s relations with developing countries actually began to change when it set out new foreign policies and speeded up the development of its “socialist market economy” in the 1990s.
After the end of the Cold War some observers argued it would be replaced by a clash between the West and the East, or by the capitalist camp against the socialist camp, or even by a conflict between the North and the South. This has not happened.
Because of fast globalization, all countries — including those in the South and the North — have become increasingly interdependent in the world economy. Traditional conflicts between the North and the South have not intensified but have been gradually replaced by regional conflicts over cultural, religious, ethnical, historical and geopolitical differences.
Global governance is required to reduce these conflicts and to address universal issues such as the deterioration of the environment, which is causing climate change, natural disasters, and water shortage crises, among others.
China’s relationship with developing countries is being reshaped by changes in its society and politics as well as shifts in the international order caused by globalization.
As China’s increased economic muscle boosts its global influence, the West is likely to burden it with more international responsibilities. China has developed complex relations with Western developed nations and its economic success has become increasingly reliant on the approval and support of these nations.
At the same time, the bloc of developing countries once grouped into the Third World is not as unified as it was. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, many poorer countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America developed divergent ideologies and economic and international strategies.
This political disintegration of the Third World, and China’s increased economic interdependence with developed countries, seems to have left Beijing confused over what international positions it should take.
At the same time, the importance of ideology has diminished in international affairs and economic interests now dominate most strategies. More than ever, partnerships between states are dictated by national rather than joint interests.
For example, China’s Africa policy has always been based on mutual economic benefits rather than political or ideological grounds. China is not a donor to Africa but a businessman.
Powerful and potential competitors of China are also emerging, such as India, Brazil and even Indonesia. Apart from Brazil, they are formal members of the Non-Alignment Movement — an inter-governmental organization of states not formally aligned with major powers — and they are more focused on jostling for leadership of the developing world.
Just as Beijing is, developing countries are reassessing China’s international position, with the vote on Iran sanctions leading more to see it as growing closer to the West. If China veers too close to the West it might damage its national interests in the long run, since it needs to cast its net in international relations as wide as possible to rise and become a genuine global power.
Dr Jian Junbo is assistant professor of the Institute of International Studies at Fudan University, Shanghai, China. This article was first published in Asia Times on 25 June 2010; it is reproduced here for non-profit educational purposes.