BEIJING -- Renewed calls for sanctions against Iran for its nuclear ambitions have forced China to engage in a tough balancing act between appeasing its close trading partner and supporting international efforts to isolate Tehran.
The arrival of an Israeli government delegation in Beijing on Thursday underscored the important role China plays as one of the five U.N. Security Council members that could veto sanctions for Iran. An Israeli spokesman singled out Iran as a topic for discussion. The group, led by Moshe Yaalon, the Israeli minister in charge of strategic affairs, will meet with China's senior foreign policy adviser Dai Bingguo during the two-day visit.
The U.S., Israel and others believe Iran is hiding nuclear weapons development under the guise of a civilian energy program. The International Atomic Energy Agency, the U.N. nuclear watchdog, also says it's worried Iran may be working on a nuclear warhead.
But Beijing has resisted a fourth round of U.N. Security Council sanctions against Iran following its recent announcement that it would press ahead with plans to enrich uranium to higher levels.
China - a permanent member of the Security Council along with the U.S., Russia, Britain and France - maintains that negotiation is the best way to handle the situation.
Along with Russia, China is usually a holdout on sanctions for Iran - only voting in favor after maneuvering to get the measures so watered down that they don't have the desired impact, said Willem van Kemenade, an independent China analyst who studies the country's relationship with Iran.
Efforts to get China on board this round may be further complicated by disputes with Washington, including U.S. arms sales to Taiwan and President Obama's meeting last week with the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan spiritual leader Beijing reviles as a separatist.
And Beijing has a particular interest in keeping Tehran close: China depends on oil- and gas-rich Iran for 11 percent of its energy needs and last year became Tehran's biggest trading partner, according to Iranian figures. Trade volume reached at least $36.5 billion, the Iran-China Chamber of Commerce reported, with Iran mainly importing consumer goods and machinery from China and exporting oil, gas and petrochemicals.
Chinese companies also have major investments in Iranian energy extraction and the construction of roads, bridges and power plants.
"China doesn't have any enemies in the Middle East and doesn't intend to create any enemies in the Middle East," said Yin Gang, an expert on the region at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.
Israel, meanwhile, considers Iran to be its greatest threat, citing Tehran's support for Arab militants, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's threats to destroy Israel and Iran's nuclear program. Israel has said it may launch a pre-emptive strike against Iran should diplomatic solutions fail, a scenario that would have disastrous repercussions for the Middle East.
Israeli officials have been visiting foreign capitals in recent weeks in a bid to raise support for new sanctions. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called for "sanctions that have teeth" during a visit earlier this month to Russia.
Support for sanctions could be gathering momentum: Moscow has shown increasing frustration as Iran proceeds with uranium enrichment despite international pressure.
Curbing Iran's nuclear program is a leading foreign policy priority for the Obama administration. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton struck a positive tone this week, acknowledging that while some countries like China were still not ready to support new U.N. sanctions, "I think we've made a lot of progress" toward gaining Beijing's backing.
"Our very clear commitment to engagement has created space for a lot of these countries to now consider supporting sanctions that they might not have otherwise, because we have demonstrated the strategic patience to exhaust the international efforts of convincing Iran to do the right thing without sanctions," she said.
Still, Yao Jide, an Iran expert at Yunnan University's School of International Relations, said China will have to consider its own needs before committing to new measures.
"China will not deal with this issue purely based on American rules because China has its own national interests to consider," Yao said. "But if Iran stated that it wanted to develop nuclear weapons, then China would definitely oppose that."
Iran, of course, has done no such thing, insisting its intentions are peaceful, though it continues to enrich uranium in defiance of the Security Council.
Clinton said she hoped to see a new U.N. sanctions resolution in the next 30 to 60 days.
Van Kemenade said he does not expect a decision anytime soon.
"This whole diplomatic showdown will go on for the next few months. ... You never know what will happen in the meantime," he said.