China is sometimes cast in the West as a selfish and intransigent child. Looking out for its own interests, this line of reasoning goes, it won't push Khartoum to curb attacks in Darfur, it won't deploy carrots or sticks to bring North Korea back to the Six-Party Talks, and it won't scold the Burmese junta for crackdowns against monks. Just this week, China's foreign ministry spokeswoman reiterated her country's commitment to distancing itself from the West's attempts to thwart Iran's quest for a nuclear bomb: "We don't believe sanctions could fundamentally solve the problem." China's investments and weapon sales to Iran made this seem largely about lust for Iran’s oil. But the truth is that in Iran, as in all of those other places, China's behavior is about more than just money. It actually has a soft spot for maverick nations that buck the international system, oppress their people, and threaten regional stability. In the end, China needs rogues.
Not that long ago, China was itself a rogue. During the Mao Zedong years, especially in the 1960s and 1970s, China's seclusion rivaled North Korea's. So it naturally gravitated toward its rogue peers; they could offer each other things they couldn't get from nations that ostracized them. After working its way back into the international system in the 1980s, China suffered a setback for cracking down on pro-democracy protestors at the end of the decade. "China was isolated after 1989, and Myanmar is isolated, so that gave the countries a natural sense of intimacy," says a foreign policy analyst working in Beijing who requested anonymity because of the sensitive nature of relations between those two countries. Like Sudan today, China faced widespread opprobrium after waging war against its own people during the Cultural Revolution and for the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989.
As China slowly recovered its status in the years after 1989, it gained political and economic power and leveraged them by forging relationships—often by aid or investment—all over the world. "There's a tradition in Chinese foreign policy for being a leader in the developing world," says Abe Denmark, a fellow at the Center for a New American Security. It also used that power to help other pariahs: Supporting Myanmar's military government, delaying sanctions to Iran, propping up North Korea with donations, and sending a high-ranking envoy to visit Sudan during Obama's recent visit to Beijing are all examples of China's diplomatic love notes.
Naturally, some of this is simply about minding the store: there are huge resource-extraction opportunities in these places. China imports about 15 percent of its oil from Iran and about 5 percent from Sudan. No doubt China's economic planners sleep better at night knowing that 20 percent of their petroleum is as likely to flow tomorrow as it did yesterday. Even North Korea has untapped minerals wealth worth up to $6 trillion. (South Koreans sometimes refer to North Korea as a Chinese province because of Chinese corporate designs on resources there.) Moreover, it behooves China to invest in places that the West won't, because it doesn't have to compete against bigger, richer, and more technologically sophisticated corporations practiced at the extraction of hard-to-reach resources. The diplomatic isolation of rogue states means that Chinese companies are often the biggest game in town.
Yet there's more at work here than money. Beijing has "done some good by urging Sudan to take peacekeepers," said Denmark. It has tried to set up a border economic zone with Burma, and some interpreters even think it has caused North Korea to rethink its nuclear ambitions. By leading with its own success story, China is attempting to show rogue leaders that they can liberalize their economies (which would redound further to Chinese benefit) without liberating their people. Beijing may not merit a Nobel Peace Prize, but at least it contributes to the stability of these regimes and prevents a Somalia-like descent into chaos.
In fact, that is the animating spirit of these friendships. China needs rogues because their collapse or, even worse, their democratization, frightens the government. On the stability front, a failed North Korea would send countless thousands of refugees fleeing into China. On the other hand, a reunified Korea would put a U.S. ally—and some 25,000 U.S. troops—on China's border. In Sudan, it's true that increased human-rights abuses might damage China's image. But in the opposite scenario—where Sudan becomes a tolerant and conflict-free member in good standing of the community of nations—Sudan would attract much more Western investment, bringing competition for Chinese companies.
On the democratization front, if Iranian protestors overthrow their government, it will be another reminder of the power of protest—a lesson that the government in Beijing is not eager to teach its citizens after the collapse of the USSR and color revolutions in Eastern Europe. Already, nationalist cyberactivists in China are supporting the Iranian regime. Beijing knows that, if anything happened in Iran, the greatest worry wouldn't be the spike in oil prices but the domestic instability it might face at home.
China's relationship with these countries might be hitting a rough patch. On January 11 the Archbishop of Sudan condemned China's involvement in his country: "China is looking only for minerals, they are looking for economic benefit. That is all. That is damaging the country." Iranian cyberhackers hacked into Baidu, China's largest search engine, and displayed an Iranian flag on the homepage.
Still, some bonds are unbreakable. On a recent visit to North Korea, China's defense minister, Liang Guanglie, reminisced about his time as a soldier during the Korean War, when the two impoverished Communist allies fought against the American imperialist aggressor. "No force on earth can break the unity of the armies and peoples of the two countries and it will last forever."