Paul Pillar

China in the Persian Gulf

Be careful what you wish for regarding how other powers react to the latest effort to ratchet up pressure on Iran. Especially when the other power is as potent a competitor as China. China depends on Iran for 11 percent of its imported oil. The idea of joining in a de facto embargo of Iranian oil through ostracism of the Iranian central bank thus naturally discomfits the Chinese. It is still unclear exactly how Beijing will play this one, as it considers how the issue affects both its relations with the United States and the state of its energy-thirsty economy. An obvious response is to work ever harder to shore up China's relations with the other Persian Gulf oil producers. That is largely what Chinese premier Wen Jiabao's current trip to Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates is about.

Chinese diplomacy is not necessarily always opposed to U.S. interests, but the overall pattern as China has endeavored to secure sources of energy for itself has not been encouraging. Getting oil has taken precedence over issues important to the international community. China's major investment in the Sudanese oil industry (from which China gets another 5 percent of its imported oil) has gotten in the way of any Chinese help on the Darfur problem. (More recently, however, with the secession of South Sudan, China's interest in keeping the oil flowing may give it an incentive to be helpful. It dispatched a mediator last month to help resolve a dispute between Sudan and South Sudan over arrangements for exporting the South's oil through the North.)

In the Middle East, another Chinese interest—at least as strong as the one in oil—gives Beijing a new reason to be unhelpful. That is the interest in not having the Arab Spring put any democratic, revolutionary ideas into Chinese heads. Beijing's nervousness about this has gone to such extremes as making jasmine a sort of contraband, out of fear that the flower that became a symbol for revolution in Tunisia might come to play a similar role in China. To the extent that activist Chinese diplomacy gives China greater influence on Middle Eastern regimes, any Chinese advice given on how to handle popular discontent is bound to be bad advice from a Western point of view. It would be advice on how to crack down and maintain a dictatorship rather than on how to smooth the way toward a more democratic state.

Premier Wen's delegation signed a slew of agreements with Saudi Arabia, the first stop on his trip. One of them concerned Chinese help in developing nuclear energy in Saudi Arabia. That makes economic sense for the Saudis, conserving more of their oil for export and sale rather than domestic consumption. But it is an interesting development in light of the assertion one sometimes hears that the oil-rich country on the other side of the Persian Gulf can't really be interested in a nuclear program primarily for energy generation.

We should not rule out the possibility of Riyadh and Beijing springing strategic surprises on us. They have done it before, with the sale of Chinese CSS-2 intermediate-range ballistic missiles to Saudi Arabia in the late 1980s. Although there is no indication that the missiles have ever been armed with nuclear warheads, their inaccuracy gives them questionable strategic value when equipped only with conventional warheads.

In brief, the latest effort to pressure a Middle Eastern state that will never come anywhere close to challenging U.S. power is stimulating the one state that credibly poses such a challenge to become more active in the region in a way that will tend to lessen the relative influence of the United States and work against U.S. interests. It is another example of how the pressure is being exerted as if it were an end in itself, with little thought to the likely consequences.