BEIJING (Reuters) - China critized U.S. sanctions on a Chinese company selling refined petroleum products to Iran, calling Washington's punishment an unreasonable step beyond international sanctions on Tehran's nuclear program.
Thursday, the Obama administration invoked U.S. law to sanction China's state-run Zhuhai Zhenrong Corp, which it said was Iran's largest supplier of refined petroleum products.
"Imposing sanctions on a Chinese company based on a domestic (U.S.) law is totally unreasonable, and does not conform to the spirit or content of U.N. Security Council resolutions about the Iran nuclear issue," the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Weimin said in a statement issued on the ministry's website (www.mfa.gov.cn) late Saturday.
"China expresses its strong dissatisfaction and adamant opposition," said Liu.
The Obama administration said its sanctions against the Chinese company and two other firms are part of a broadening effort to target Iran's energy sector and press Tehran to curb its nuclear ambitions, which Western governments say appear aimed at developing the means to make atomic weapons.
Iran says its nuclear activities are legitimate and entirely for peaceful ends.
The U.S. sanctions threat is a worry for China, the biggest buyer of Iranian oil, followed by India and Japan. Only Saudi Arabia and Angola sell more crude than Iran to China.
As a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, China can veto resolutions mandating sanctions. But Beijing has voted for them, while working to ensure its energy ties are not threatened.
China has, however, also long criticised the United States and EU for imposing separate, unilateral sanctions on Iran and said they should take no steps reaching beyond the U.N. resolutions.
"Like many other countries, China and Iran maintain normal energy and trade and economic cooperation," said the foreign ministry spokesman Liu.
Analysts have said the U.S. move was largely symbolic, given that China's Zhuhai Zhenrong was unlikely to have much U.S. business, but that it sent a warning to Beijing and its state-run oil giants such as China National Petroleum Corp (CNPC), China Petroleum and Chemical Corp (Sinopec Corp) and China National Offshore Oil Corp..
These companies have invested billions of dollars in the U.S. energy sector, and are much more exposed to the impact of potential sanctions.
(Reporting by Chris Buckley, Editing by Jonathan Thatcher)