Supplicating to China, Obama bows instead to Iran

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You can be forgiven for not noticing that the Obama administration held another round of high-level talks with the Chinese government this week. Touted as having “unprecedented depth and breadth,” the U.S.-China Senior & Economic Dialogue is really an overstaffed opportunity to snuggle up to our adversaries while alienating our traditional allies. Specifically, diplomat spring break on the Potomac — as the gathering might more honestly be called — has reinforced the Obama policy of benefitting China at the expense of allies like Japan, while simultaneously undercutting sanctions on Iran.

Secretary of State Clinton kicked off the confab by stating that “We both have much more to gain from cooperation than from conflict.” It must take great composure for Beijing’s delegates not to chuckle when they hear this well-worn incantation. It assumes that Chinese cooperation on any number of matters can be obtained through creative U.S. tongue-wagging and essentially ignoring issues like Beijing’s rapid military buildup, bullying of its neighbors, internal repression, economic cronyism and massive theft of intellectual property and military secrets.

As with other instances where the Obama administration has preferred to romance dictatorships rather than partner with traditional allies, results do not live up to billing. Obama administration officials cite Chinese cooperation in dealing with Iran as the primary area of progress with Beijing. It is also the reason for the unspoken policy of forgoing real action on issues of contention. In opening the celebrated talks, Secretary Clinton said “the United States and China came together to enact tough sanctions on Iran, and now we are working to implement them.”

The only thing lacking is evidence. And in contrast to rosy assessments of progress that conveniently omit details or proof, the Chinese government is actually manipulating Washington to deepen its economic engagement in Iran at the expense of U.S. allies and interests. Case and point is the administration’s lopsided enforcement of the Iran sanctions law passed last year. The idea was to punish companies doing business in Iran — especially its petroleum sector.

But early signs President Obama would give Chinese companies a pass have come true. During the debate over the law, allies such as Japan and South Korea expressed concerns that Chinese companies would benefit as their own businesses had to exit the Iran market to comply with the sanctions law. And of course merely replacing Japanese companies with Chinese ones in Iran does little to punish Iran.

Sure enough, as of March of last year, China had commitments of over $80 billion in Iran’s energy sector while Japanese and Korean firms had been forced to scale back operations. The U.S. helped eliminate competitors of China’s state-owned firms while doing little to halt Iran’s march toward a nuclear weapons capability.

Last August, Toyota stopped sales in Iran. In November, Japan Post’s financial arm halted remittances to Iran. Yet in September, reports emerged of a Chinese plan to build a $2 billion railroad in Iran. And in March, Iranian officials reported that China will continue to participate in a project totaling over $6 billion that will involve development of Iran’s Azadegan field — a position held by a Japanese company that was forced out by uneven application of the new law.

The situation was bad enough for a bipartisan group of senators to write in late March to Ms. Clinton and Treasury Secretary Geithner complaining the administration had not achieved “full compliance with the [Iran] sanctions regime put in place by Congress.”

Plugging the de facto loophole President Obama has created for Beijing on Iran sanctions could have been a topic of discussion this week. It might have even proved wrong those who think the talks are little more than diplo-tourism on a scale of “unprecedented depth and breadth.”

But that might lead to an unpleasant conversation with an adversary of the United States — something the President Obama and his team have shown repeatedly they are uncomfortable doing. In Mr. Obama’s Washington, as in Beijing and Tehran, it is much easier to go hard on U.S. allies instead.

Stephen Yates was deputy national security adviser to the vice president from 2001 to 2005. Christian Whiton was a State Department official from 2003 to 2009. They are respectively the C.E.O. and Principal of DC International Advisory.

Stephen Yates and Christian Whiton