On Friday, the Trump administration announced an expansion of sanctions against Iran, its first action after a previous warning that it was putting Tehran “on notice” after the country tested a medium-range ballistic missile the weekend before.
You'd expect Iran to react angrily. But the move also sparked criticism from a source you might not have expected: China.
That’s because the sanctions weren’t targeted at Iran’s government, but rather specifically designed to strike people and organizations that either aid its ballistic missiles program or help Tehran provide support to militant proxy forces in the region — and China got caught in the crosshairs.
Two Chinese companies and three Chinese individuals that fit the criteria have been added to the sanctions list, which means they’re barred from doing business with US companies, and that companies around the world will be blacklisted by the US if they do business with the them. The US measures also prevent the sanctioned Chinese firms and citizens from using the US financial system.
It seems entirely in keeping with the Trump administration’s general hard-line with China to use any opportunity it has to prod Beijing. But it’s not clear that this was a deliberate Trumpian swipe at China. Richard Nephew, a sanctions expert at Columbia University who coordinated sanctions policy at the State Department under Obama, told me over email that he’s “very confident that these were prepared under Obama,” and that “Obama hit the Chinese companies too, with some frequency.”
That being said, the measures would’ve been perceived a bit differently under Obama than Trump. Despite differences with China, Obama made many efforts to cooperate with Beijing, in part to make sure China kept sanctions on Iran in the run-up to the landmark nuclear deal in 2015. Trump, by contrast, has deemed China one of the US’s foremost adversaries, and so his pressure tactics likely appear much more threatening to Beijing.
The new US sanctions are not formally tied to Iran’s nuclear program in any way — they are for other activities that Iran has long been sanctioned for by the US. But it’s hard to compartmentalize them diplomatically, and China’s critical response is a reminder that Trump’s shoot-first style could make it harder for the administration to persuade China to cooperate with new sanctions on Iran if Tehran restarts its nuclear program.
There’s a reason why the new measures ensnared China: Some companies and people there have a history of covertly shipping materials to Iran that support its missile program, a quiet workaround that helps Iran since international restrictions currently ban the country from obtaining these goods. In other words, there’s good reason to think this isn’t all a total contrivance designed to lash out at China.
But that doesn’t mean it’s not a message to China all the same — and understood in advance by the White House to be something that would rankle Beijing, which indeed it has. On Monday, China lodged a formal protest against the sanctions, and warned that it will increase challenges for the international community’s coordination on Iran.
“We have consistently opposed any unilateral sanctions,” Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Lu Kang said at a news conference. “The sanctions will not help in enhancing trust among the different parties involved and will not help in resolving international problems.”
The Washington Post reports that “the state-run Xinhua news agency said the sanctions cast a shadow over the prospects for a peaceful settlement of the Iranian nuclear issue and called them a ‘ticking time bomb’ for peace and stability in the entire Middle East.”
China’s response to the sanctions is a reminder that the degree to which the US and China get along has real consequences for the rest of the world.