After a breakthrough on sanctions in 2010, China opposed European suggestions in the UNSC and criticised the EU for strengthening sanctions.
Together with the US, the EU seeks to co-operate with China in stopping nuclear proliferation, in particular in Iran and to a lesser extent in North Korea. While China shares European concerns about the Iranian nuclear programme, it also has strong economic ties with Iran, particularly on oil. EU member states are generally united on this issue and have empowered the E3 (France, UK, and Germany), together with Catherine Ashton, to negotiate on their behalf. In 2010, the EU and the US had a major success when China voted in favour of a UNSC resolution imposing sanctions on Iran. For much of 2011, Iran was overshadowed by events elsewhere in the Middle East and North Africa and in particular in Libya and Syria. But it came back on the agenda in November, when the IAEA, the international nuclear watchdog, published a critical report on the Iranian nuclear programme.
However, this year it was harder for the West to reach agreement with China than in 2010. China opposed a European proposal for further sanctions against Iran following the publication of the critical IAEA report and refused to refer the issue to the UNSC. Still, the EU and its partners managed to co-operate with China and Russia to agree on a watered-down IAEA resolution. Europeans had to strike a difficult balance between the need for tough action and the desire to maintain a degree of unity with China (and Russia). But even then, when the EU, spearheaded by France and the UK, imposed tighter sanctions (with an oil embargo that will probably follow in 2012), China publicly criticised them. In short, while the EU remains as united and committed as it was last year, it has had less impact as China has continued its strategy of delaying and weakening international sanctions. In 2012, the Iranian nuclear issue could come to a head, so dialogue with China will be even more critical.