Russia may be engaged in a geopolitical chess game with the U.S. aimed at recovering from the demise of its great power status, but China is different. It pushes back against U.S. initiatives only when those are deemed inimical to its national interests. Iran is a good example. Beijing’s heavy investment in and reliance on Iran’s energy sector make it extremely averse to serious sanctions or strategies that create political turmoil in Tehran. While insisting on compliance with the non-proliferation regime, Beijing does not believe Iran represents an imminent nuclear weapons threat. And its response to North Korea going nuclear suggests that a nuclear armed Iran is something it could live with.
Obama went to China arguing that its emergence as a major power gives it greater responsibility, as a partner to the U.S., in helping run the world and tackle such global challenges as climate change and Iran. Indeed, there was a collective shudder in Europe’s corridors of power at the idea of global leadership being concentrated in a “G2” partnership between Washington and Beijing. They needn’t have worried. China’s response to Obama could be read as: “Running the world is your gig, we’re focused on running our own country, and ensuring security in our immediate neighborhood. We want harmonious relations with you, but don’t expect us to do anything that we deem harmful to our national interests.” That means no serious sanctions against Iran, regardless of what deals are struck between Washington and Moscow, because China’s national interests require growing Iran’s energy exports. [continued…]