By Chris Buckley
BEIJING (Reuters) – China and the United States risk deepening rifts over influence and oil in the Middle East, Beijing’s former envoy to the region has said, urging his nation to bolster ties with Iran and other energy-exporting powers.
Sun Bigan was China’s special envoy on the Middle East until March, and in a new essay he said U.S. President Barack Obama’s effort to improve ties with Islamic states in the Middle East was a tactical shift that had not removed the potential for friction between Washington and Beijing in the region.
China faced growing risks to energy security as it increasingly relied on imported oil, especially from the volatile Middle East, where Beijing’s sway had been limited, Sun said.
“The U.S. has always sought to control the faucet of global oil supplies. There is cooperation between China and the U.S., but there is also struggle, and the U.S. has always seen us as a potential foe,” he wrote in the September issue of “Asia & Africa Review,” which reached subscribers this week.
“Bilateral quarrels and clashes are unavoidable. We cannot lower vigilance against hostility in the Middle East over energy interests and security,” Sun wrote in the Chinese-language journal, which is published by the State Council Development Research Center, a prominent state think tank.
Sun’s essay was written before the latest flare-up over Iran’s nuclear ambitions, which has renewed Western pressure on Beijing to distance itself from Iran and back sanctions.
China’s Foreign Ministry has urged restraint on all sides ahead of talks between Iran and the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, as well as Germany, in Geneva on Thursday. The permanent Council members are the United States, Russia, Britain, France and China.
Sun, who now works for a government-run association promoting ties with Asia and Africa, was not directly involved in nuclear negotiations with Iran, but he served as China’s ambassador there, as well as in Saudi Arabia and Iraq.
He could not be contacted at the association on Wednesday.
The unusually blunt warning from a former senior diplomat, nonetheless underscores some of the anxieties over oil, influence and security that are likely to shape China’s response to the West’s confrontation with Iran.
“Both now and in the future, the Middle East should be our first choice in importing oil and developing oil cooperation,” Sun wrote. China should focus on strengthening trade with Saudi Arabia, Iran and Oman, he added.
Washington would strive to ensure Iraqi oil remained under U.S. control, he said, but “Iran has bountiful energy resources and its oil gas reserves are the second biggest in the world, and all are basically under its own control.”
“Oil gas” is the natural gas found in oil fields.
In the first eight months of this year, Iran was China’s third biggest foreign source of crude oil, with shipments of 17.2 million tonnes, a rise of 14.7 percent compared to the same period last year. Angola and Saudi Arabia were the first- and second-ranked suppliers.
Chinese imports of Iranian oil and gas have been held back by U.S. sanctions, Iranian commercial demands and Chinese jitters, Sun said. But China could find access to Iranian supplies drastically curtailed if political power in Tehran passed to forces more sympathetic to Washington, he suggested.
“Obama’s new Middle East policy is merely a tactical adjustment, and the United States will not and cannot alter its global goals and dominance,” Sun wrote.
(Editing by Dean Yates)