Here in Washington the United States and China have just finished off the latest session of their joint talking shop, which is rather clumsily known as the “Strategic and Economic Dialogue.”
Journalists hailed the meeting as a “milestone” for the relationship between the two countries – mainly, it would seem, because Washington and Beijing have resolved to work their way past various recent sources of tension. (They agreed, among other things, on a much broader program of military-to-military cooperation.)
The two sides didn’t publish a communiqué, since this isn’t really a formal state-to-state sort of affair. But the “media note” issued instead is illuminating.
Perhaps the most significant thing about it, in our humble opinion, is the topic that barely comes in for a mention: Iran.
There’s only one place where the statement touched directly on that issue. Under Section III (“Addressing Regional and Global Challenges”) we found the following bland remark: “They reiterated their understanding on the Iranian nuclear issue as expressed in the 2011 U.S.-China Joint Statement.”
And that was it.
There is a lot more that could have been said on that particular subject. Generally speaking, one might have discussed the point that the Chinese are stepping up their economic cooperation with Iran at a time when companies in Europe and Japan have been pulling out of the country in compliance with the various sanctions now in place as part of the effort to persuade Tehran to abandon its military nuclear ambitions. (For another good report, look here.)
But there are also more specific things to worry about.
On March 17, Malaysian police confirmed that they had confiscated two containers filled with equipment that, they said, could be involved in the production of nuclear weapons. The ship, called the Bunga Raya 1, was en route from China to Iran. The Malaysians said that the goods in question almost certainly violated UN sanctions against exports to Iran.
A few days before that, Robert Einhorn, the State Department’s special adviser for nonproliferation and arms control, told a Washington conference that the U.S. government is worried that Chinese companies might be helping Iran with its nuclear program.
In October of last year, meanwhile, an unnamed senior official from a U.S. intelligence agency got a bit more specific. He told The Washington Post that Chinese firms had been caught selling “high-quality carbon fiber to Iran to help it build better centrifuges.”
The article appeared in the wake of a visit to Beijing by Einhorn, who handed the Chinese a “significant list” of Chinese companies suspected of helping Iran to evade UN sanctions on its nuclear and ballistic missile programs.
The Chinese argue that these companies are rogues, operating without official approval, and that the government in Beijing will take appropriate measures to rein them in. The Obama Administration seems, at least on the face of things, to accept that reading.
This, apparently, has also been the tack taken by the Chinese government at the United Nations, where it has so far prevented the involvement of Chinese companies in nuclear proliferation activities from being brought up at the Iran sanctions committee. (At least a report now in the works at the UN does mention the aluminum powder, probably destined for use as missile fuel, that was intercepted in Singapore last fall.) The Chinese, it should be noted, have been notably successful at thwarting the publication of a report on North Korea’s covert uranium program by the panel of experts in the sanctions committee on North Korea.
This is beginning to look like a trend.
From the outside it appears that the Obama Administration just doesn’t want to push the Chinese too hard on this one. Various conspiratorial scenarios come to mind. If you know who the Chinese suppliers of Iran’s nuclear program are, why shut them down when you can use them, instead, to deliver the next even more devious version of the Stuxnet virus?
We here at Outpost suspect, though, that the reality is a lot more mundane. It’s easy to imagine the trade-offs that might factor into a decision to soft-pedal Chinese involvement in nuclear proliferation. Like, say, keeping the Chinese on board as major purchasers of U.S. government debt at a time when the national credit rating doesn’t look so great.
It’s a funny old world.
(Note: Iran has just declared that it's ready to resume talking with the West - though it didn't mention anything specifically about nukes. So far no takers.)
- Christian Caryl