Errant NATO bombs turn China into backer of Serbs

Bid to isolate Milosevic disintegrates with hit on Chinese Embassy

War In Yugoslavia

May 12, 1999|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- NATO's mistaken bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Yugoslavia has turned Beijing into an advocate for Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic and handed the United States a new headache in its quest to end the Balkans war.

China usually treads quietly in world crises, except when its interests are directly at stake. It holds a powerful veto in the United Nations Security Council but seldom exercises it.

Until Friday, Beijing had avoided mounting a strong challenge to NATO's air war against Yugoslavia and had been counted out as a major diplomatic problem for the White House.

"Ten days ago, the Chinese were saying, `We don't have a dog in this fight,' " said Douglas Paal, a former White House official who heads the Asia Pacific Policy Center.

But the mistake that sent three laser-guided bombs from a B-2 stealth bomber into China's Belgrade embassy, killing three Chinese and wounding 20 others, changed all that.

Now China, worried that the conflict in Yugoslavia is setting a precedent for Western intervention closer to home, has adopted an anti-NATO posture even more assertive than Russia, which has gone from being a strident opponent of the airstrikes to trying to broker a deal between NATO and its Slavic, Orthodox brethren in Yugoslavia.

Russia last week signed on to the idea of putting a military force in Kosovo -- once the air war ends -- to guarantee the safe return of ethnic Albanian refugees.

Viktor S. Chernomyrdin, Russia's envoy in the crisis, is continuing to mediate even as heavy NATO bombing goes on.

Yesterday, Chernomyrdin ended a two-day visit to Beijing, where he and Chinese officials called on NATO to halt its air campaign.

Chernomyrdin also urged Chinese officials not to block a U.N. Security Council resolution that Russia and the seven world economic powers (the Group of Eight) crafted last week. It demands the removal of Serbian troops from Kosovo and calls for a peacekeeping force under U.N. auspices in the embattled province.

Chernomyrdin said the Chinese "agree that the decision by the Group of Eight could be the basis for future negotiations." But the Chinese accounts of the talks made no mention of the plan by name.

The Russian envoy returned to Moscow and said he would have fresh proposals today, when he meets Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott.

German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder is due to make a long-planned visit to Beijing today.

China, meanwhile, has positioned itself to leverage the peace process. Portraying itself as a victim of deliberate NATO bombing, "It will exact a toll in the Security Council," says William vanden Huevel, a former deputy U.S. envoy to the United Nations.

Using its important role as a permanent member of the council, China is expected to push hard for an end to the bombing and demand significant United Nations control over the planned Kosovo security force.

"They're trying to leverage themselves into a tougher position," said James Lilley, former U.S. ambassador to China.

Before tackling the war's endgame, China is pushing the Security Council to chasten the United States and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization over the embassy attack.

Failing to win support for a condemnation, China circulated a resolution yesterday that would have the council strongly "deplore" the mistaken bombing.

This new assertiveness comes as Beijing's relations with Washington continue on a rocky path, with the Clinton administration delaying a deal on China's entry into the World Trade Organization and a continued furor on Capitol Hill over China's alleged nuclear espionage and efforts to influence the 1996 presidential campaign.

In a statement late Monday, China's U.N. ambassador, Qin Huasun, demanded an immediate halt to the seven-week air war "to create a conducive atmosphere for a political solution."

After Russia agreed on a common approach last week with the leading Western countries, NATO officials had proclaimed that Yugoslavia had been left without allies. China, however, has now given Belgrade a major boost.

If Beijing has a message for NATO, Lilley says, it is this: "What you did to our embassy is a violation of our sovereignty. It's going to get tougher for you to do this."

China has long had good ties to Belgrade, except during the Cultural Revolution when it denounced then-Yugoslav President Josip Broz Tito for splitting from orthodox communism.

But China's main worry is that a precedent is being created for a powerful U.S.-led alliance to intervene in the internal affairs of other countries. For Beijing, this raises fears of international support for freedom in Tibet and, more important, for Taiwanese independence.

In one of its few recent Security Council vetoes, China blocked renewal of a U.N. peacekeeping force in Macedonia after the small Balkan country officially recognized Taiwan.

China also sees the United States leading a pincers movement against China, squeezing from the Pacific through its ties with Japan and Taiwan and from the West through NATO's expansion.

As a result, analysts say China will try to block or at least dilute NATO's control over the security force that would police Kosovo and allow for a safe return of the refugees.

But Jan Berris, vice president of the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations, says Beijing won't be so obstructionist as to block a path to peace.

"Most people feel there will not be serious consequences for an outcome in Kosovo because they want the bombing stopped," she said.

Less clear is whether China will use its new forceful posture in future crises or return to the dictum of its late, pragmatic leader Deng Xiaoping: Keep a low profile, only engage when China's interests are directly involved, and focus on development.

Pub Date: 5/12/99

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