China’s opposition to action against Iran shows how it is increasingly at odds with the United States. It is a shame Washington hasn’t noticed.

There is a fascinating difference between the international diplomacy on Iran as compared with that on Iraq prior to the invasion. The opposition to the Anglo-American action was led by France, with somewhat muted support from Russian and China. Indeed, China remained as quiet as could possibly be. Nearly four years later we are in very different waters. The opposition in the United Nations is being led by Russia and China with France on the opposite side.

By far the most interesting – and significant – change concerns the role of China. No longer is it hiding behind other powers but is showing a willingness to speak out that it has not displayed before. The period of single-minded preoccupation with economic growth is rapidly giving way to a much more active and independent diplomatic role. Earlier this week the Chinese foreign minister specifically stated that China was opposed to both sanctions and military action. How far will China press this opposition – would it veto American military action in the security council, for example – is difficult to predict, but certainly we are seeing a new kind of Chinese role on a major global issue.

The primary reason for China’s quiescence previously was that it did not want to offend the United States, which it rightly regarded as crucial to its economic prospects, above all because it is easily the country’s most important export market. But China’s extremely rapid economic transformation has been pushing it towards a myriad of global interests and commitments that mean that it is obliged to play a more proactive and independent role. Its oil interests in Iran are a classic case in point. And the ever-widening nature of these interests will inevitably mean that China will find itself in serious conflict with the United States on some issues.

Last week I heard a leading Chinese academic give a talk at the National University of Singapore on the recent Hu-Bush summit. Judging by its content, the speaker was clearly well connected in Beijing. He was clearly deeply preoccupied by the fact that Bush did not honour Hu Jintao with a state dinner, which would certainly be the normal convention for such an occasion. This had clearly caused the Chinese serious disquiet. Put bluntly: did Bush’s deliberate snub suggest that Sino-American relations were entering choppier waters? I have found leading Chinese international relations experts in Beijing over the course of the last year on the whole reluctant to discuss the possibility, with notable exceptions: they certainly do not speak with one voice. It has almost been as if – at least in some cases – they don’t want to believe that this could happen.

But it is happening. China’s growing role in the world is making its relationship with the United States increasingly complicated and potentially fraught. This could all have surfaced rather earlier: prior to 9/11 the Bush regime was intent on identifying China as a serious threat to the United States but the latter was put on the back-burner in the interests of the war on terror. Now it is slowly being moved to the front-burner again. But the Americans don’t seem to know what to do. The Bush administration has been so preoccupied with the Middle East that it has largely neglected its relationship with China. In future this is likely to be seen as yet another blunder by the administration. The relationship with China will, willy nilly, become by far and away the most important issue facing the United States – in fact it already is, but such is the myopic world view of the Bush administration that it has totally failed to recognise it.