China and Iran: Energy and/or Geopolitics

Abstract This essay offers a Chinese perspective on the role played by Iran in China’s energy security and contemplates ways for China and the U.S. to address the associated diplomatic challenges. Iran is a factor that contributes to and risks deepening the “trust deficit” in diplomatic relations between China and the U.S. For China, access to Iranian energy resources is conditioned by an array of factors, including market-based concerns and considerations of domestic stability within China were Beijing to side with Washington in applying sanctions against Tehran. Beijing is not as forthcoming as Washington would like in dealing with Tehran, but Chinese involvement in multilateral diplomatic forums should not be overlooked. American observers are often tempted to view Chinese diplomacy toward Iran as part of an agenda to confront the U.S. and the wider West. The truth of the matter, however, is much more complex. China’s failure to heed U.S. demands to curtail oil imports and other economic ties to Iran can best be characterized as utilitarian and commensurate with the mutual anxieties that Beijing and Washington hold about each other.
Author National Bureau of Asian Research; Zha Daojiong; September 2012
1 Energy and Climate, 1.3 China and International Relations in the Energy Sector