Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao is on a six-day swing through the Arabian Peninsula, primarily trying to secure alternative supplies of oil and gas. His first stop was Riyadh, where it appears, based on comments made by a Saudi Foreign Ministry official to the New York Times, that Wen made some headway.
Washington has been cheering Beijing’s recent initiative to increase its energy imports from the Saudi kingdom and its neighbors. Why? Because the more energy China buys from the peninsula, the less it needs to buy from Tehran. If there is any plan that can stop the ayatollahs’ nuclear ambitions short of the use of force, it will include an air-tight energy embargo enforced by sanctions and backed by meaningful punitive measures. And up to now, the biggest sanctions buster has been Beijing.
So far, China has not been cooperative with American efforts to isolate the Iranian regime. First, Beijing tried to wish the problem away. “The regular economic and trade relations and energy cooperation between China and Iran has nothing to do with the nuclear issue,” said Vice Foreign Minister Cui Tiankai to reporters early this month. “We should not mix issues with different natures.”
Then, US Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner visited the Chinese capital, where he got the cold shoulder on Iran. After the visit failed to produce the desired result, Washington imposed a meaningless sanction on a Chinese oil trader—Zhuhai Zhenrong Corp.—an action the Chinese Foreign Ministry labeled “totally unreasonable.”
The tougher US sanctions were enacted on the last day of 2011 and will not take effect for another six months. If followed, the sanctions will soon impose severe and meaningful penalties on Chinese banks that handle Iran petro trade. Yet in the interim we can expect Beijing to maneuver to satisfy hard-liners in its government and military as well as to probe potential soft spots in American determination. The real drama begins later.
Beijing does not want to be seen as a rogue power if it can help it, so Premier Wen is now touring the Gulf looking for alternative sources of oil and gas. What happens if he comes up short in his hunt for alternative energy sources?
In that case, Beijing will feel it has no choice but to continue to purchase large quantities of oil and gas from Iran—which could represent a lifeline for Tehran going forward, diminishing the impact of sanctions and bringing the regime closer to its nuclear dream. If Beijing does continue those purchases, it will put it on a collision course with Washington.
Time is running short as Iran draws closer to developing the bomb. Democratic and Republican administrations alike have said, and demonstrated through stepped-up sanctions and diplomatic activities, that the US has no tolerance for a nuclear Iran. If President Obama were to waive the new rules for China at this critical moment, such a capitulation could lead to calamity.