On Thursday, US President Barack Obama had an hour-long discussion with Chinese President Hu Jintao in which he urged Beijing to take a tougher stance on Iran’s nuclear programme. Stressing the importance of the two countries ‘working together to ensure that Iran lives up to its…obligations,’ Obama also discussed Taiwan and the implementation of G20 agreements withHu.
The conversation was time to coincide with Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili' visit to Beijing. On Friday, following talks with China’s foreign minister and other officials, Jalili said at a press conference that ‘China…agreed that tools such as sanctions have lost their effectiveness.’ The Iranian representative also warned that, even if implemented, international sanctions would not stop Iran pursuing its nuclear programme.
Israel is also actively lobbying China to take a more robust approach with Tehran. Major General Amos Yadlin, the head of Israeli military intelligence, travelled to China recently to share Israeli intelligence on Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons. Next week, Major GeneralAmir Eshel , the head of the Israeli Defence Force’s planning directorate, will make an official visit to China where he will present policy makers with Israel’s view of Iran’s apparent push to develop nuclear weapons.
The openSecurity verdict: In order to secure additional UN sanctions against Iran, President Obama needs China to agree to at least abstain on the vote. China has traditionally used its position as a permanent member of the UN Security Council to veto such measures. There are tentative signs that China’s position may be softening, but undoubtedly Obama has his work cut out for him in the wake of several diplomatic clashes between the US and China over issues ranging from Tibet and Taiwan to Google.
Israel’s relationship with China is, to an extent, less strained. Israel is reportedly China's second largest supplier of military technology, after Russia, with Rafael, the research and development arm of the Israeli defence ministry specialising in air launched weapons, having sold them the advanced Python 3. Israel has also collaborated with China on the production of its first indigenous fighter plane, the J-10, as well as supplying cruise missile technology.
On the other hand, Iran is Beijing’s largest foreign supplier of oil; a key concern for the voraciously energy-intensive Chinese economy. Iran is also a major customer for Chinese weaponry, with the perverse result that it is likely Israeli military expertise has found its way to Tehran via China. Although surreal, it is this link that underscores China’s potential role as a decisive power broker in the Iranian nuclear standoff.
In past talks with Israel, China has repeatedly emphasised that it does not support Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons, but also condemns the threat of using military force to disarm the Islamic Republic. There is no reason to doubt that this is a realistic summation of China’s diplomatic stance and may be the rationale for its softening position regarding sanctions. As retrograde a move as increased sanctions may be in Beijing’s eyes, they would be far preferable to having its key energy supplier attacked, with the disruptive regional conflagration that would likely follow. But China potentially has the ability to use its ties with Israel and Iran to position itself as an honest broker, and to engineer a compromise that will rule out sanctions while also alleviating Israel’s security concerns. WhetherHu Jintao is willing or able to exploit these relationships to this end remains to be seen.
In the wake of air strike, Israel threatens new Gaza offensive
On Friday, Israel demanded that the militant group Hamas ceases rocket and mortar attacks from the Gaza Strip, threatening a new offensive against the Palestinian territory. Speaking on public radio, Israel’s deputy prime minister,Silvam Shalom, said that ‘if this rocket fire against Israel does not stop...it will force us to launch another military operation.’ Israel’s last offensive into Gaza, code-named operation ‘Cast Lead’, resulted in the deaths of 1,400 Palestinians, as well as ten Israeli soldiers and three civilians.
His comments came after a series of IAF air strikes against what Israel described as ‘weapons manufacturing and storage facilities’ in the Strip; this in response to the nearly twenty rockets fired into Israel in the last month, one of which killed a Thai farm worker. Witnesses on the ground, however, say that attack hit two caravans near KhanYounis, a cheese factory and a metal foundry. Although no one was killed, several bystanders, including children, were injured.
Analysts emphasise that the launch of twenty rockets from Gaza in March represents an escalation compared with previous months. In addition, there have been rising tensions across the Occupied Territories, including an outbreak of violence last week between theIDF and members of Hamas’ armed wing, the Qassam brigades. Two Israeli soldiers and two militiamen were killed in the clash.Repeated clashes in the West Bank, and the increasing bellicosity ofHizbollah leave open the possibility of a three-front war, with the possible involvement of Iran, if a return to peace talks does not extinguish such tensions.
Karzai lambasts western governments over election fraud
On Thursday, Afghan President Harmid Karzai excoriated the United Nations and foreign embassies in an inflammatory speech, alleging that voter fraud in last summer’s controversial elections was perpetrated by the same, predominantly western, nations who are currently fighting to defend his embattled government. Although he has moved to distance himself from foreign governments in recent months, this latest speech represents a drasticacceleration. Karzai accused both the deputy UN representative to Afghanistan and the EU chief election observer by name in connection with voting fraud. Referring to coalition combat forces in Afghanistan,Karzai used rhetoric hitherto the preserve of Taliban militants when he warned that foreign troops risked being seen as invaders.
The speech comes after a recent visit by US President Barack Obama, as well as a defeat in the lower house of the Afghan parliament which blocked a revision to the law that would allowKarzai to hand pick members of a commission to investigate electoral irregularities. It is widely believed that Obama took a hard line with the President, criticising the Afghan administration’s corruption and the failure to reform electoral law.
South Korea urges restraint over sunken naval vessel
A week after the sinking of the 1,200 tonne, South Korean corvette, Cheonan, in contested waters off the coast of North Korea, South Korea’s President Lee Myung-bak has said that there must be ‘no suspicion or negligence’ in the probe into the sinking. Forty-six sailors are still missing, and search efforts have had to be called off due to poor weather conditions. One rescue diver died after losing consciousness while searching the wreck for signs of life.
The navy’s chief of staff, Kim Sung-chan, has said that the Choenan’s ammunition storage facility appeared undamaged and that the ‘ship was broken in two by powerful outside pressure or an explosion’. South Korean Defence Minister KimTae-young has speculated that the explosion could have been caused by a mine laid by the DPRK during the Korean War, potentially sent floating towards the South Korean ship by members of the communist state’s military.
President Lee has said that this was ‘a very sensitive and important question’ which will be answered by a thorough and rigorous investigation. He has placed the military on high alert and government officials have been told not to go on leave until tensions ease. The DPRK has yet to comment on the incident. The location of the explosion is still disputed between the two Koreas and has been the scene of naval clashes before.