Why China's Not Backing Bush on Iran

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President Hu Jintao's talks with President Bush this week have shown just how far apart the two countries remain on issues dear to Washington — most significantly, on the goal of depriving "Axis of Evil" states of nuclear programs.

Even as the two presidents met at New York's Waldorf-Astoria Hotel on Tuesday, Bush's top negotiator on North Korea was 12 time zones away in Beijing for a new round of six-party talks on Pyongyangís nuclear weapons program. The objective of those talks is not only to stop North Korea's declared weapons program, but also to dismantle the estimated seven weapons that Pyongyang has already built — the U.S. wants to put the toothpaste back in the tube, but hasn't made much progress. The last round of talks ended early last month with the participants — North Korea, South Korea, Japan, Russia, China and the U.S. — unable to agree even on a "statement of principles."

The sticking point is peaceful nuclear power: The U.S. wants to deprive North Korea of all its nuclear capabilities, including nuclear power reactors, in exchange for aid and respect. But Pyongyang wants a deal that would replace its current reactor with a light-water reactor, whose fuel cycle is not conducive to a weapons program, paid for by the other parties to the talks. China supports North Korea's position and wishes the U.S. would just give in. After all, the U.S. in 1994 had promised to build a nearly identical light-water reactor for North Korea as part of a deal to quash the country's nuclear weapons program. That deal unraveled in 2002. Today, President Hu would be glad for any type of agreement. He has presented his country as capable of brokering a difficult agreement on its home turf, so he'll look bad if the talks fail. Plus, he'll face the downside of a nuclear-armed loonocracy just across the Yalu River.

No one disputes that North Korea needs an energy source — oil, nuclear, something — to address a shortage that causes regular blackouts, even in the capital. An oil-rich country like Iran has a tougher time making a case for a nuclear energy program, according to President Bush, and he wants China's support in pressuring Iran to surrender its nuclear ambitions. Specifically, he wants President Hu to support his efforts next week to have the UN's nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency, refer Iran to the Security Council over failure to disclose aspects of its nuclear program. That's a little like asking the glue factory manager to punish the guy who shoots horses: China imports roughly half of the 6.7 million barrels of oil it uses every day, and Iran is one of its biggest suppliers. China feels little threat from Iran's nuclear program, but UN sanctions against Iran could cause Beijing a great deal of discomfort. As a permanent member of the Security Council, China can use its veto to prevent sanctions against Iran, but it would rather not call so much attention to itself. Far better to keep the issue out of the Security Council altogether.

Mr. Hu may also be thinking in terms of payback. Remember just a few months ago, when China's state-run oil company, CNOOC, bid to buy California-based Unocal? Capitol Hill went crazy with talk that China was muscling in on America's strategic interests. China's leaders were baffled by all the politicking: CNOOC made a pretty good offer, they thought; Chevron wound up bidding less but still winning the deal. So Mr. Hu is in no mood to hear Mr. Bush talk about how China should use its leverage against Iran.