Iran’s referral to the United Nations Security Council last week couldn’t have happened without the support of China—and that’s a welcome sign. The move is, in large part, thanks to a senior-level dialogue between China and America which may now be bearing fruit. Yet it is early days on the Iran campaign, and Washington and Beijing may still part company over Tehran’s potential violation of nuclear nonproliferation agreements. If they do, the vision of deep U.S.-China cooperation may not be realized.
The positive development on Iran has its roots in U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick’s speech to the National Committee on U.S.-China relations in September last year. Mr. Zoellick coined a new phrase: “responsible stakeholder.” He noted that China has become a full member of the international system over the last 30 years, as the U.S., Europe, and Japan wanted. It has benefited greatly from that system—so much so that it is arguably on its way to great power status. But having benefited, Mr. Zoellick argued, it is time for China to give back. The international system will be less stable if China “free-rides” in the future, and the other power centers including the U.S. will look at China with greater wariness if it does so, he concluded.
To us, when the great powers are responsible stakeholders, they subordinate their narrow national interests for the sake of the stability and well-being of the system of the whole. It is one in which they suppress the temptation to compete for power and advantage in favor of a preference to cooperate in the interests of all. It is one in which, when a threat to peace and stability arises, the great powers act in concert to meet and defeat that threat. To use a sandbox metaphor, when toddlers start throwing sand at each other, parents act not to defend their children’s misbehavior but join to enforce the norm against throwing sand.
China’s reaction to developments in North Korea’s nuclear program shows that she understands what it means to be a responsible stakeholder. Seeing a deadlock between Washington and Pyongyang and growing tensions in its Asian neighborhood, Beijing convened the six-party talks in 2003 to resolve the situation peacefully, with the goal of a nuclear-free Korean peninsula. The talks have made only halting progress since then, but China’s diplomacy has been unprecedented and far from trivial.
One can argue that Beijing had an immediate interest in taking on the chore of hosting the six-party talks. North Korea is on its border. If it collapsed, became a declared nuclear power, or provoked a war with the U.S., China would be directly impacted. Iran is a different story. It does not share a border with the Middle Kingdom. Iran directly threatens the greater Middle East, not China’s neighborhood. Moreover, an energy-thirsty China has signed agreements with Iran worth tens of billions of dollars, to allow it privileged access to Iran’s oil and gas sector.
Yet the responsible stakeholder idea implies that despite all of these counterarguments, China should work in concert with the international community to force Tehran to abandon its nuclear-weapons program. Up until last week, China had been hesitant to take a stand. When its behind-the-scenes diplomatic efforts failed, China dragged its feet on agreeing to resolute action by the U.N. Security Council, and particularly economic sanctions. China’s reluctance may reflect a legitimate difference over the tactics of timing and scope of action within the boundaries of a shared game-plan. But it might also reflect a strategic divergence between China and the other powers, where Beijing plays into Iran’s strategy, which is based on the premise that the world needs Iran more than Iran needs the world.
China’s willingness now to report and refer the Iran case to the U.N. Security Council is a good start. But it defers the hard questions. China could let the other great powers take the heat for standing up to Tehran while continuing to enjoy its favors and good will. If it does, the consequences may be serious. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s jihadism and virulent anti-Zionism could appear vindicated at home and more broadly throughout the Islamic world. The United States and Europe could lose the battle to stabilize the Middle East—and the nuclear nonproliferation regime could be history. Working in parallel, Iran and North Korea could thus demonstrate how any country with modest resources and deceit can secure the world’s most destabilizing weapons. Furthermore, China would have demonstrated that when the chips were down, it chose its narrow, domestic economic interests over the needs of the international system. The hope that great power cooperation might supersede competition would prove illusory.
China’s power is growing economically, diplomatically, and militarily. That is bound to cause frictions with the world’s dominant power, the U.S. A clash between the two is certainly not inevitable, and is profoundly contrary to the interests of both. But those frictions cannot be managed, and a harmonious and constructive relationship cannot be sustained over the long term, without a shared policy vision in which U.S. diplomats can operate and which rings true to a broad spectrum of American political leaders. A China that increasingly uses its new power in the service of the international system and in concert with the U.S. and other great powers is a country that the world will embrace. That is the vision which the concept of a “responsible stakeholder” embodies. Iran’s nuclear ambition challenges both China and that vision.