Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao (溫家寶) defended his country’s oil trade with Iran against Western sanctions pressure in comments published yesterday, but also warned Tehran against any effort to acquire nuclear weapons.
Wen spoke on Wednesday at the end of a six-day visit to the Middle East, against a backdrop of tensions over possible US sanctions on nations that engage in energy trade with Iran, which Western powers say is focused on developing nuclear weapons.
Iran has insisted its nuclear goals are peaceful, and late last month threatened to punish the latest Western sanctions by choking off oil flows through the Strait of Hormuz, a vital route for much of the Middle East’s oil exports.
“China adamantly opposes Iran developing and possessing nuclear weapons,” Wen said, and he warned against potential confrontation in the Strait of Hormuz.
Beijing is usually much more coy in public about saying Iran could want nuclear arms.
Speaking at a news conference in Doha, Wen also took aim at both potential threats to China’s oil imports: the US sanctions pressure and the Hormuz tensions.
“I also want to clearly point out that China’s oil trade with Iran is normal trade activity,” he said in response to a question about US and European efforts to curtail Iranian oil exports and revenues, according to a transcript on the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs Web site.
“Legitimate trade should be protected, otherwise the world economic order would fall into turmoil,” he added.
Wen visited Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar.
The Chinese leader’s comments laid bare the tricky path Beijing is trying to steer between pressure from Washington and its allies and rival expectations from Iran, which looks to China as a sympathetic nation and a big oil customer.
“There have been similar statements [from China] before, and of course China has repeatedly voted in favor of resolutions over this issue in the UN Security Council,” said Yin Gang (殷罡), an expert on the Middle East at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing.
The tensions are a particular worry for China, the biggest buyer of Iranian oil, followed by India and Japan. Only Saudi Arabia and Angola sell more crude to China.
“We believe that, no matter what the circumstances, the security of the Gulf of Hormuz and normal shipping passage through it must be guaranteed, because this is in the interests of the whole world,” Wen said.
The administration of US President Barack Obama last week invoked US law to sanction China’s state-run Zhuhai Zhenrong Corp, which it said was Iran’s largest supplier of refined petroleum products.
The US is also working out how to enforce a law enacted on Dec. 31 that targets foreign financial institutions doing business with Iran’s central bank, notably to buy crude.
China has backed UN Security Council resolutions calling on Iran to halt uranium enrichment activities, while working to ensure its energy ties are not threatened.
In the first 11 months of last year, Chinese crude imports from Iran were about 553,000 barrels per day, a gain of nearly 30 percent on the same period a year earlier, according to Chinese customs data.