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China's government, as President Barack Obama by now no doubt knows, loves to talk about climate change. But it's an issue that exists for Beijing at 30,000 ft., far from earthly, everyday concerns. So President Hu Jintao can play the responsible global citizen by making vague commitments, as he did at the U.N. this fall, to reduce his country's carbon gas emissions by a "notable amount" at some point in the future without actually doing anything that might disrupt China's economy. But he doesn't have the same luxury of deferring action on the increasingly urgent global concerns over nuclear developments in Iran and North Korea.
Obama's sense of urgency over Iran is pretty apparent. Before arriving in Beijing, he conferred on the issue with Russian President Dmitri Medvedev at the APEC summit in Singapore and warned that "time is running out" for Iran to accept a deal to send its uranium to Russia for reprocessing into reactor fuel. The implicit message was clear: unless Iran accepts the plan, the U.S. will press for further sanctions against Tehran, this time possibly seeking restrictions on investment in Iran's vital energy sector.
A U.S. push for harsher sanctions against Iran won't be welcomed in Beijing, for two reasons. First, for all the talk of China as the other half of a G-2 that will - together with the U.S. - set the world's agenda, Beijing has not yet embraced the idea that it has the power and responsibility to shape events far beyond its borders. "Beijing is interested in domestic stability first, and stability on their frontier after that," says a senior East Asian diplomat based in Beijing. "The notion that they are ready and willing to stand up and run the world with the U.S. now is very premature." Adds Willem van Kemenade, an expert on the China-U.S. relationship at the Netherlands Institute for Security Studies, on the question of Iran sanctions: "[China's] first instinct will be to look to see what the Russians do."
That's odd on the face of it because China's interests in Iran are very different from Russia's. Moscow is a huge energy exporter whose responses to Iran's nuclear program are primarily based on geopolitical calculations. Under Prime Minister Vladimir Putin - who tells Medvedev what to do - Moscow is in the process of deciding whether accepting a nuclear-armed Iran fits with its strategy of pushing back against U.S. global dominance.
Unlike Russia, China defines a harmonious relationship with the U.S. as being among its core interests. But China now imports a growing share of Iran's oil output - Tehran is China's third largest foreign supplier (behind Saudi Arabia and Angola), and Beijing has also significantly increased its investments in natural-gas projects in Iran. Being forced to choose between an expanding energy relationship with Iran and maintaining diplomatic accord with the U.S. is precisely the kind of dilemma that makes China's leadership assume the foreign policy equivalent of the fetal position. Thus, Hu's public remarks on Tuesday afternoon, after meeting with Obama: "We both stressed that to uphold the international nuclear nonproliferation regime and to appropriately resolve the Iranian nuclear issue through dialogue and negotiations is very important to stability in the Middle East and in the Gulf region."
Got that? No talk about "time running out." It's all about "dialogue and negotiations" (even if Iran has been talking to the West for years about its nuclear programs and just rejected the best offer it had ever gotten). The template China would like the U.S. to follow in responding to Iran is the same one that is used in dealing with North Korea - the topic that will dominate the conversation in Seoul, Obama's next stop.
Unlike Iran, North Korea is already a nuclear-armed nation, and it says it continues to reprocess plutonium to build more bombs. (The U.S. estimates that Pyongyang has eight to 10 nukes so far.) China has used its leverage to get North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il to rejoin negotiations over its nuclear program after a lengthy hiatus, and Obama is eager to engage - to Beijing's enormous relief. "Kick the can down the road" is its guiding principle in nuclear diplomacy, whether in its backyard (North Korea) or farther afield (Iran). China, first and foremost, wants stability on its border, and not even North Korea going nuclear did much to change that equation. China also needs Iran's energy exports, and anything that mucks that up - like tougher sanctions - is unlikely to interest Hu.
For now, Hu has what he wants in respect to North Korea - both Pyongyang and Washington are willing to resume talks. Keeping the Iran nuclear stalemate off the boil won't be as easy. Obama said on Tuesday that if Iran failed to assure the outside world that its nuclear intentions were "peaceful," there would be "consequences." For the record, that's not a phrase the Chinese came anywhere close to using.
Three times in the last four years, Beijing has voted for limited sanctions against Iran at the U.N. And right now, insists senior Administration adviser David Axelrod, "there is more unity than there has ever been in dealing with Iran." But such unity is based on the U.S.'s emphasizing diplomacy rather than ratcheting up pressure on Tehran. How long it will last is one of the questions Obama will have to worry about on his long flight home.