World powers are looking to China to help pressure Iran ahead of an important diplomatic summit Thursday between Iran and the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, plus Germany. On Monday, Iran tested its most advanced missiles; and last Friday, President Obama warned Iran that it was "on notice" and faces international condemnation if it continues work on a previously secret nuclear facility that was disclosed last week.
China's role in the international effort to curb Iran's nuclear ambitions is one of many issues on the plate of the new U.S. ambassador to China, Jon Huntsman. Huntsman took his post in Beijing in August.
But Huntsman says the U.S. will have to "wait and see" before making any moves.
"We'll have to let this one play out for a few more days and see what Iran comes back with," Huntsman tells NPR's Melissa Block. "Clearly, we're working very closely with China, and the next few days and weeks, I think, are going to be very, very important in terms of putting this relationship — and this particular aspect of the relationship — to the test."
China has an economic interest in Iran, especially in oil and gas reserves. It supplies Iran with refined gasoline.
Huntsman says that given those economic ties, it will take "multilateral leverage" to put pressure on China. Also, he says, China's place in the world is different now than it has been in years past.
"It's China waking up to the reality that they are a responsible stakeholder on the international stage, which means that their behavior today as relates to Iran — or as it relates to other regional security issues or trade — is maybe seen a little bit differently," he says.
"And maybe there is a heightened level of expectation. And with it comes a heightened sense of responsibility and stepping up, and maybe doing some things on, for example, the export-control side. That might be a little bit different than how they might have handled it in years past," Huntsman adds.
The Dialogue On Human Rights
Although China has a more prominent role on the world stage, its government has been cracking down broadly on dissidents, and human rights activists and the lawyers who defend them.
When asked what the U.S. is doing to pressure the Chinese government on human rights issues — and what may work — Huntsman says "regularizing our human rights dialogue."
"In other words, making it a systemic part of our overall bilateral dialogue is a very important thing to be doing," he says. "And I suspect this fall — remember [Obama] will be visiting [China] in the middle of November — we're going to see the resumption of the human rights dialogue, which has largely been dormant for the last seven or eight years. That will do exactly that — begin to regularize the discussion with respect to human rights and religious freedoms."
Earlier this year, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the U.S. putting pressure on human rights issues "can't interfere with the global economic crisis, the global climate change crisis and the security crisis." Human rights watchers said that statement translates to the U.S. giving short shrift to human rights in favor of economic ties with China.
But Huntsman tells NPR the U.S. relationship with China is defined more now by global issues versus bilateral issues.
"We had a relationship in years gone by that dealt primarily with the range of bilateral issues — issues that we have to work through, including human rights," Huntsman says.
"But we've also got several very important global issues — they include energy and climate change, regional security and the global economy," he adds. "And the relationship today is, I think, more and more defined by now two countries coming together and problem-solving around many of these global issues. It's where our relationship increasingly is going, but at the same time we've got bilateral issues. Trade and human rights will, of course, be a very, very important part of our dialogue ongoing."
Communication Tied To Individual Freedoms
Huntsman says people's ability to communicate in China reveals an important societal change.
"The fact that you have such a proliferation in terms of people's ability to communicate — the Internet traffic, bloggers, people have conversations they've never had before, access to outside information — this is all tied to a very important underlying change that's going on [in China], inexorably tied to individual freedoms and liberties. And human rights will always be a part of that debate," he says.
But Huntsman says the cases of people in China going to jail for attempting to communicate messages are "very, very unfortunate."
"We raise them, and we work on them," he says of the cases. "But the underlying theme here is this communication revolution is very real, and it is moving forward in ways that give people access to the outside like never before."