Thursday, February 04, 2010

What's going on with China?

The United States certainly does over-emphasize Iran relative to its own interests, but it does not seem plausible that China's position on Iran would by itself cause what now seems like a trend of US provocations of China, the visit of the Dalai Lama, the arms sales to Taiwan and the public complaints about China's currency policy.

I've doubted the narrative that Russia and China effectively restrain US attempts to harm Iran for some time now. The United States could stop sea-based Iran gasoline imports at any time, for example. The US Treasury Department could also blacklist Iran's central bank today if it chooses. Because of that, I do not see, beyond play-acting, any cause for US frustration at China over China's supposed reluctance to impose new sanctions on Iran.

On the other hand, the United States was not as publicly antagonistic towards Iran six months ago as it is today, and while Taiwan, Tibet and the renminbi have been issues for a long time, the US has usually not as publicly and bluntly challenged China as it is doing today.

I don't know what's going on. Maybe the Obama administration is trying to demonstrate that it is willing to apply maximum pressure in all areas of its relationship with China in hopes of making China more cooperative with sanctions. Maybe China has decided not to cooperate with sanctions, so the United States is expressing its anger and frustration at China. Maybe US/China tension is increasing for some other reason.

What we do know is that no sanctions regime, China supported or not, will cause Iran to give up its nuclear program. US policymakers seem to understand this. The acknowledged effect of sanctions is more to punish Iran than to deter it.

We also know that one effect of sanctions is that they allow the US to postpone its conscious or deliberate acceptance of Iran's nuclear program - which is something US policy-makers, indirectly because of a fear of being perceived as anti-Semitic, have a strong psychological impulse to delay for as long as possible.

It is likely that another effect of sanctions is that Iran would retaliate in ways that are harmful to the two most important foreign policy concerns for the US today, Iraq and Afghanistan and that now is a very sensitive time in both cases. US policymakers should be aware of this consequence of sanctions, but I have not seen much discussion about it. I guess it is possible that the US foreign policy community is overlooking the damage sanctions would do to US regional efforts, but I consider that unlikely.

Most likely, the United States is ambivalent about sanctions in total, and from that position, frustration over Chinese cooperation over sanctions could not be a driving force in the apparent deterioration of US/Chinese relations we see today.

What is causing the deterioration, of which China's new public opposition to the supposed US drive for Iran sanctions is most likely just another symptom rather than a cause? The United States is generally a less powerful country than it was when the careers and perceptions of the US foreign policy community were developing. I guess adjustments have to occur at some time or other, and maybe now is a time that we are seeing the bumpiness of and resistance to the process by which the United States loses its global pre-eminence.


Lysander said...

I'm beginning to suspect much of this China/US spat is domestic politics by Obama to look tough. Midterms are coming up and Obama wants to buff up his belligerence credentials, which every president needs.

Ahmadineja'd offer seemed to be a submission to western demands at first, and I assumed it was because Iran felt it was losing China's support.

But now China's foreign minister reiterated CHina's anti-sanction policy and did so while in Paris where he was certainly being asked to back sanctions.

Now it seems Ahmadinejad simply intended to call out the US and its European hangers on. Their "offer" was designed to be rejected. But simply by hinting at acceptance, he sent them into a panic. French FM Kouchner almost said as much.

Notice Iran did not make a formal acceptance to the IAEA. I would think that if Iran was giving up, it would try to be as secretive as possible to avoid loss of face. Yet Ahmadinejad made his announcement on television.

Furthermore, by announcing it would be "no big deal" if the west reneged, he was announcing that Iran would then have all the excuse it needed to go to 20% enrichment on its own.

Now the west has a few choices.

1) accept the deal and then renege, risking Iran's further enrichment from a strong diplomatic position.

2) accept the deal and fulfill it, meaning the west has implicitly recognized Iran's enrichment.

3) Reject the deal and keep pushing for sanctions, but with a weaker hand than before. But again, Iran will enrich on its own.

It is still too early to say, but its looking more like a tactical move on Iran's part rather than surrendering to western demands.

Arnold Evans said...

I'm starting to feel like there may be something more fundamental - China may be in the process of losing respect for the United States and where that would be most pronounced would be the Middle East 1) because that's where US foreign policy perception is most distorted and 2) because China has more to lose from Middle East instability than the US and knows it.

China may be less willing, especially under Obama after the settlement freeze fiasco, to let the US take the lead on Iran and Middle East issues in general, because US and Chinese effective interests do not align.

All we know about the deal is the rough outline, there are a lot of details that haven't been made public. As details fill in, we'll be able to see what was on offer. Possibly starting Bushehr is part of this deal, while Iran continues to enrich, or maybe the S-300s.

When the deal was first announced in October, Israel was against it. What is public is a terrible deal for Iran, but it is possible that there are terms that compensate Iran for the risk it is being asked to take as well as provide Iran with counter-leverage to ensure the US supplies the fuel.

We'll see.