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China’s Role In Iran Crisis Not So Far Out

The term “Far East” is not one you hear that often anymore, especially in California, where the “East” doesn’t really seem all that far away. But the president of the United States, in a recent major news conference, used the term anyway.

No matter that the president chose to employ the term; at least you have to be relieved to find out he realizes there’s such a place out there. After all, this is an administration whose secretary of state cancels trips to the Far East almost routinely. It’s a government that sometimes acts as if the only really important “East” is the one that comes with the adjective “Middle.”

Even Daniel Ayalon, Israel’s ambassador to the United States, for one, doesn’t think that, and he would know.

Unlike many Israelis and Jews, he well understands that the “Far” East is at least as important as the Middle East, with which so many are obsessed these days; and he accepts that the role of a “Far East” power like China could be pivotal to the fate of the Middle East.

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Ayalon recently visited the Pacific Council on International Policy and offered a sweeping and brilliant briefing, which was, however, mostly off the record.

What was exceptionally noteworthy , and what can be reported as on the record , was this distinguished diplomat’s emphasis on the role of China in the resolution of the Iran nuclear-buildup crisis. And while crisis is a word we in the media use too freely, make no mistake about it: This standoff with Iran has become just that, an international crisis.

Tensions and concerns regarding Iran’s nuclear program are mounting. The United States and the EU-3 (Britain, France and Germany) , not to mention Israel , are convinced that the Islamic government in Tehran is determined to assemble a substantial nuclear-weapons arsenal. They want to stop that from happening, while at the same time accepting Iran’s need for a peaceful nuclear-energy program.

One serious speed bump on the road for Iran becoming a nuclear power would be a formal warning from the U.N. Security Council. Yes, this institution is a weak reed to lean on; but at the moment it is the preferred route of the West.

Two of the elite five member-nations of the Security Council with veto powers are Russia and China. The former has been playing nice with Tehran and might well veto any action. China, whose expanding economy has made it into an energy addict that mandates friendly relations with any and all energy-exporting nations, might be inclined to veto as well.

How China plays its diplomatic hand in this crisis could prove pivotal with regard to the U.N. role , and extremely telling about its foreign policy direction. America hopes that it will not veto proposed U.N. action, thus isolating Moscow and putting pressure on other world players in Asia, particularly India, to get with the anti-Iran program.

The U.S. view of China’s responsibility is clear. In a major speech on Sino-U.S. relations in September in New York before an important organization called the Committee of 100, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick urged Beijing to establish and nurture foreign policies that persuasively identify this rising power as a major “stakeholder” in world politics.

To its credit, Beijing , once its translators were able to figure out what the term stakeholder actually meant , responded in a positive fashion.

Just the other day, Zoellick himself, in China, claimed that Beijing’s position on the Iranian nuclear-weapons program standoff was not substantially different from the American stance.

I am not sure about that, and neither, probably, are the Israelis. But Beijing would be right to throw its weight behind the international effort to keep Iran from going nuclear. If Iran does go nuclear, an arms race in the Middle East, involving at least Saudi Arabia, Egypt and perhaps Jordan, would be probable. What is also probable is a pre-emptive military strike by Israel that would inevitably draw in the United States and galvanize anti-Western emotions through much of the Islamic world.

In his visit to China, the State Department’s No. 2 person re-emphasized his country’s hope that a mature Chinese foreign policy would need to have blue-chip stakeholder quality; its very size and growing economic clout will prevent it from hiding behind vapidity and knee-jerk neutrality, especially in the face of serious international crises.

Zoellick is no anti-China neoconservative; he is a sensible and serious man and he is absolutely right about this. His advice to China not only serves U.S. interests, but China’s as well. Its official position on the Iranian standoff, to date, is that further diplomacy remains the best option. But the Chinese are shrewd; they well realize the ugly game the hard-core fundamentalist government in Tehran is playing. The only question to be answered now is what game the Chinese will choose to play in response.

While the Far East is no longer so far out, the distance Beijing wants to remain from firm and necessary diplomatic action is still in question. The closer Beijing gets to stepping up to the challenge, the further removed we will be from nuclear war in the Middle East, the most energy-rich area of the globe. This would be in everyone’s interest, especially energy-gulping China.


Tom Plate is a UCLA professor, former editorial page editor of the Los Angeles Times and a member of the Pacific Council on International Policy.

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