The disturbing partnership between regimes ruling China and Iran was the main topic of testimony to the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission recently. Delivered by Ilan Berman, Vice-President for Policy of the American Foreign Policy Council, the testimony was presented at a hearing on "China's Proliferation to North Korea and Iran, and its Role in Addressing the Nuclear and Missile Situations in Both Nations".
It is a matter of general public knowledge that Beijing has, over the last few years, consistently endeavoured to soften the United Nations' response to Iran's nuclear ambitions. Most recently, the Chinese Communist regime has opposed the imposition of sanctions against Iran following the passing of the August 31 Security Council deadline for the cessation of uranium enrichment activities by the Islamic republic.
Not only did Tehran not meet that deadline, but it effectively thumbed its nose at the Security Council by unveiling plans for the Arak Project – a new heavy water reactor that would produce weapons-grade plutonium as a by-product. Equally disturbing was the discovery a few days later of traces of highly enriched uranium at the Karaj waste storage facility.
Considering the increasingly suspicious nature of Iran's allegedly non-military nuclear programme, along with the belligerence and intransigence of President Ahmadinejad and a number of extremist mullahs, it would seem to be in the interests of everyone on the planet to curb the regime's ambitions. What then is behind the PRC's (People's Republic of China) "softly, softly" approach to the issue?
China's economic growth in recent years may not be as spectacular as the somewhat dubious statistics produced by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) would indicate, but that growth has nonetheless been significant, with the result that China's demand for energy has escalated.
The People's Republic is now the second largest consumer of oil and petroleum products on the planet, guzzling a cool 7.4 million barrels a day. Iran has 10 per cent of the world's oil and the second largest reserves of natural gas. China and Iran have duly signed energy agreements worth an estimated $US120 billion ($A160 billion) over the next twenty-five years. This partnership not only gives China much of the energy it requires, but also insures Iran against any drop in world oil prices such as occurred in the late 1990s. Because of its overwhelming reliance on oil exports, any significant fall in the price of crude could bring the Iranian economy to its knees.
With the PRC becoming increasingly reliant on Iranian oil, the very last thing Beijing wants is any interruption in supply, so it is perfectly logical to expect China to be firmly opposed to sanctions. The Berman testimony also adds the important point: "It has likewise not been lost on Chinese officials that a likely result of sanctions could be an escalation to military action against Iran and the possible loss of a major Chinese ally to US supported regime change."
Since the break-up of the Soviet Union, Communist China's policy has been to try and curb American influence as much as possible throughout the world. To this end Beijing has sought partnerships and alliances with just about every regime they feel might have some antagonism towards the US. Iran is, of course, one such regime, but PRC politicians and diplomats have been active all around the world building bridges with the likes of Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe and Hugo Chavez in Venezuela. Most of Beijing's friends in Africa, Asia and South America could be described as oppressive regimes in one way or another.
Weapons to Iran
The overthrow of Saddam Hussein may have done Tehran a big favour by removing its number one opponent in the region, but the ongoing allied presence there and in Afghanistan, not to mention Israel's recent incursions into Lebanon, has made the mullahs nervous.
The majority of Iranians are by no means as antagonistic towards the West as their fanatical leaders. The latter fear a liberalisation of the religious state and the diminution of their power that would inevitably follow. As the Berman testimony states: "These trends have found their expression in an increasingly robust proliferation partnership and the integration of Iran into Chinese dominated security structures."
For instance, Iran now has observer status, along with Pakistan, India and Mongolia, at the Shanghai Co-operation Organisation (SCO). The latter consists of Russia, the PRC and four former Soviet republics, and is aimed at reining in American influence in central Asia. Iran's President was guest of honour at the SCO summit in 2006 where he delivered a typical speech calling on the organisation to openly combat "the threats of domineering powers", which the Berman testimony correctly interprets as "a thinly veiled reference to the United States". Beijing is believed to want Iran as a full member of the group.
Yet there is a much more sinister side to the China-Iran axis that is of greater concern than diplomatic posturing and simple economic co-operation. Mr Berman states: "The goods provided by the PRC have included anti-ship cruise missiles, surface-to-air missiles, combat aircraft and fast-attack patrol vessels, as well as advanced technology designed to expand the versatility of Iran's burgeoning cruise missile arsenal."
Beijing has failed to abide by the terms of the Missile Technology Control Regime as agreed with the US in 1994, having greatly assisted Iran with missile technology. Similarly, the Chinese regime has shown scant respect for the terms of the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty signed in 1992. The Berman testimony concludes: "China's record of proliferation to Iran is poor – and getting worse."
Iran's chemical weapons programme is estimated by the Americans to be currently the most active in the world and, despite being a signatory of the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention, Chinese firms are still actively engaged in the manufacture and export of chemical weapons technology. Particularly disturbing is the possibility of such weapons finding their way into the hands of terrorists.
During the recent conflict in Lebanon an Israeli ship was disabled by an Iranian variant of the Chinese C-802 "Silkworm" missile, which Western intelligence had hitherto not revealed as being part of the Hezbollah arsenal.
The Berman testimony has made it clear that the Americans and Europeans are going to have to take a much more realistic view of the China-Iran (and let's not forget North Korea) axis. It is absolutely not in the CCP's interests to curb Iranian ambitions – nuclear or otherwise.
Beijing's apparent contempt for the aforementioned international weapons treaties should also be a warning for the Australian Government. The latter appears to be naively prepared to trust Chinese officials' assurances that any uranium obtained from Australia will not be used for weapons programmes or passed on to third parties. The PRC's record of proliferation, as exposed in the Berman testimony, would strongly suggest that such trust is extremely misguided.